By Jondi Gumz, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Rosa Hernandez, Ana Ventura Phares, Veronica Camberos, Mireya Gomez-Contreras and Gina Castaneda share their stories Friday with supporters of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. (Jondi Gumz -- Santa Cruz Sentinel) 
Rosa Hernandez, Ana Ventura Phares, Veronica Camberos, Mireya Gomez-Contreras and Gina Castaneda share their stories Friday with supporters of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. (Jondi Gumz -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Ana Ventura Phares, former Watsonville mayor, chats with Diane Porter Cooley Friday at event unveiling the Girls in Pajaro Valley Initiative. (Jondi Gumz -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Ana Ventura Phares, former Watsonville mayor, chats with Diane Porter Cooley Friday at event unveiling the Girls in Pajaro Valley Initiative. (Jondi Gumz -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

WATSONVILLE >> Borrowing the phrase “Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not,” Community Foundation Santa Cruz County CEO Lance Linares unveiled the “Girls in Pajaro Valley Initiative” for an appreciative audience Friday at the Watsonville Civic Center.

More than 100 supporters heard about the launch of the Fund for Women and Girls, started with a $1.5 million gift from an anonymous donor, and a $500,000 matching gift on the table.

“We have our first match,” said Linares, thanking the Peggy and Jack Baskin Foundation for giving $100,000 and Jack’s granddaughter Nicole Baran, who runs that family foundation, was in attendance.

Ginny Solari Mazry made the second gift, $50,000.

The goal is to raise $2.5 million by the end of 2017 to fund a three-year pilot program to encourage girls in middle school, grades 6-8, providing academic and social support to make education a part of their future.

Attendees heard stories from five women who grew up in Pajaro Valley and credit their success to mentors.

Mireya Gomez-Contreras, 37, program director at the Day Worker Center, is the first in her family to graduate from college. As Community Action Board program director, she got mentoring from board members Margery Regalado-Rodriguez and Jane Weed-Pomerantz.

Veronica Camberos, 32, got encouragement to pursue college from Rosa Hernandez, a counselor at Aptos High working on her doctorate.

“Nobody in my family knew what it took,” said Camberos, programs director at Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust.

When the two women spotted each other, they embraced.

Hernandez, 48, is in her second year as principal of Lakeview Middle School. She went to Cabrillo College, then got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at San Diego State University and a doctorate at University of San Francisco.

As a Watsonville High student, she wanted to study psychology, but her counselor told her to go into cosmetology, like her mother and her aunt. Another counselor Mike Sullivan looked at her grades and saw potential, putting her on track for college.

Ana Ventura Phares, 55, recalled how her father expected all six of his children to go to college. She wanted to take college-prep English but was told there was no room. When her counselor at Watsonville High told her college was not for her, her father’s advice was: Find another counselor. She did. She found Mike Sullivan. He told her, “You have good grades, you’re going to do good things.”

Phares, who has a law degree, was a personnel analyst for Santa Cruz County, working on equal employment opportunity issues. Now she’s a consultant at a law firm specializing in civil rights.

Gina Castaneda, 41, a probation officer, coaches girls ages 7-8 in soccer. Her team won the Division II championship. She said she talks to the girls about academics and nutrition, encouraging them to believe in themselves.

Growing up in a troubled home, she was 16 when her father left and she became responsible for her 11-year-old sister.

Aptos High athletic director Mark Dorfman encouraged her in sports, paid for her SAT college admission tests and wrote a check for her cap and gown at graduation.

At the end of Castaneda’s sophomore year, he told her, “You’re going to make it,” words she cherished.

Guest speaker Emma Mayerson, a 2010 honors grad from Tufts University who founded the Alliance for Girls in 2012, talked about solving problems like high absenteeism in Oakland schools.

She learned the problem was “Slap Butt Friday,” which made girls stay home. Her organization is now working with school district officials to draft a new policy on sexual harassment.

FUND FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS

What: First project will be the Girls in Pajaro Valley Initiative, a three-year pilot program focusing on girls in middle school, grades 6-8.

Grants available: $450,000 over three years to community groups for mentorship, educational and career development guidance.

Proposals due: 5 p.m. Feb. 23.

Learn more: 4-6 p.m. Nov. 29 or 9-11 a.m. Dec. 2.

Fundraising goal: $2.5 million for the fund by the end of 2017.

Why Pajaro Valley: 90 percent of Pajaro Valley middle-schoolers are enrolled in free or reduced price lunch; 40 percent of Watsonville’s population has less than a ninth grade education; 44 percent of high school graduates in Watsonille are not eligible for a four-year college because they didn’t take the right courses in middle school.

Information: Cfscc.org/ or 831-662-2000.

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