Young Men's Initiative
May 27, 2016 11:55AM ● Published by Ronda Ball
Fathering a Generation
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Juan Verduzco
Eddie Valero knows he had the kind of educational opportunities that very few students will ever get – especially those growing up in smaller, more rural towns like Cutler and Orosi.
The Cutler-Orosi native learned this firsthand, though he graduated from high school a year early, attending various summer programs, taking classes at College of the Sequoias and then Yale. “I was always given the resources,” Valero says humbly, but as a result, “I sort of became the Ivy League spotlight kid.”
Valero eventually landed at Cornell University – a world apart from his hometown, “and during that time I noticed some of the inequities in our educational system.” Spurred by the realization, Valero began taking classes in education, eventually starting a doctoral program at Cornell. “Then I came back to the valley in 2012, and started teaching at Fresno Pacific University.”
Not long after his return, Valero ran and was elected to the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District’s school board. Valero still sits on the board, and this year was elected to serve as president of the district’s governing board. Through his initial experiences on the board, Valero “quickly noticed the decline of male achievement.”
“I would go to scholarship and award nights,” says Valero, “and notice there were always double digits in females, and only single digits for men receiving awards. That’s when I started realizing that young men in the community were growing up without the resources that I was given growing up.”
More than the lack of resources and educational opportunities, though, Valero had become aware of “the fatherless generation in Cutler-Orosi, but also nationwide.”
Valero’s response was to start Young Men’s Initiative, a program to provide resources and opportunities for these young men, but also to address the needs of a fatherless generation.
YMI has grown quickly. From 13 students in its first year to 39 last year, YMI now supports 53 students.
There’s something of a vetting process to join, says Valero, based upon teacher and counselor recommendation, but the program exists “for the very best, the very worst, and the in-between kids.”
“I want YMI to give them a sense of what can be,” explains Valero. With volunteer trips to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, some students experience large urban areas for the very first time. Plus, they’re given the opportunity to give and receive, from preparing food for a homeless shelter in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to receiving a tour of Frank Sinatra’s mansion in Los Angeles. In short, YMI helps widen these students’ experiences.
“That way we support each other,” explains Valero. “I noticed that a lot of these young men in the program were fatherless already – though not necessarily physically. Sometimes the father and son can’t communicate because of English barriers,” or by prison, or maybe even by work.
Motivating these students is surprisingly easy, he says. “I give them what they are searching for, the two things that are missing in education right now. One is love, genuine authentic love, which they don’t find at home, and the second is compassion.”
Valero talks about “the silos of absence” in their lives, but when filled with love and compassion “it helps them understand on a deeper level community, service, leadership, initiative and brotherhood.”
Through love and compassion, his students “are finding a deeper sense of belonging and connection to community,” he says.
One such student is Jose, who “was supposed to be in continuation and independent study because he had so many fights in junior high. He was also a former gang member. He’s so brilliant but was going in the wrong direction.”
To a student living the gang life, Valero, the Cornell graduate, might have cut a suspicious figure. “So I met with him one on one, and asked, ‘Are you ready to change your life?’ He had one shoe in and one shoe out,” says Valero, and only needed the support group to encourage him.
It was transformation made in the eleventh hour, but Jose was able to graduate with a high GPA and attend college.
The latest addition to the YMI program is a campus built directly across from Orosi High School, a duplex with two apartments
“In the house, we’re converting to a café where our young men will work, earn an income, and learn to run a business.”
The goal is for the campus to become a conference facility for people within the community, says Valero.
The garage is `in the process of being turned into a kitchen and “innovative hub that might be used to create jams that will go into our café, or be used as a spread for paninis,” Valero offers.
Another plan is for a local agriculture instructor to teach YMI students about gardening.
The campus opened earlier this year, and though YMI continues to explore its possibilities, already “it’s a culmination of community, service and authentic relationships being formed,” says Valero. The campus, like the number of men that it serves, will continue to grow so long as there are men and women who, like Valero, are willing to step up and invest in the lives of the fatherless.
YMI Campus • 12737 Avenue 417, Orosi • www.ymigroup.org
YMI Cafe opening July 1 • Hours: Monday-Friday 7am-7pm, Saturday 10am-2pm