Despite being located in Tulare County, which possesses the second highest agricultural income in California, Cutler-Orosi is one of the poorest communities in the state, with earned per capita income for 2016 at $6,456 for Cutler and $10,577 for Orosi. Residents in this underserved community face a number of challenges, from food insecurity and high crime rates, to a severe lack of comprehensive youth leadership opportunities and educational support. In particular, these challenges are especially damaging to young males, who often fall behind academically and may turn to dangerous, destructive paths without guidance and leadership.

Having grown up in Cutler-Orosi, Eddie Valero is no stranger to the challenges his community faces. While serving on the Governing Board of the Culter-Orosi Joint Unified School District in May of 2012, Eddie realized that the majority of the young men in his hometown didn’t have the same opportunities he had growing up – something he sought to change. That same year, Eddie convened a roundtable titled, “In Pursuit of Excellence: Male Achievement and Success,” gathering legislators, parents, school staff, academics, and agencies for a two-day brainstorming session. The goal: come up with creative solutions to some of Cutler-Orosi’s most persistent problems surrounding education, academic achievement, and outreach of young males in the community. At the end of the two-day convening, Eddie and the roundtable participants came up with an idea for a way to engage the male youth of Cutler-Orosi through a program that was uniquely tailored to their needs.

YMI Executive Director Eddie Valero, at the YMI Campus Coffee & Pastry Bar. The YMI Campus is located directly across the street from Orosi High School, in a duplex with two apartments and a garage. YMI has converted the building to a café where program participants gain job skills and earn an income. (Photo Credit: Juan Verduzco)

From that two-day roundtable discussion, Eddie developed the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), a peer-led nonprofit organization. YMI provides leadership opportunities and support for young males in Cutler-Orosi, Visalia, and Avenal. Operating with leadership, unity, and service in mind, YMI transforms the mindset of a community perceived as disadvantaged, violent, and uneducated to one of hope, opportunity, and ability. In its first year, YMI began by engaging a small group of 13 students; by 2014, that number had more than tripled. Today, over 50 students have been engaged by the program.

In 2016, with a grant from the Central Valley Community Foundation, YMI launched an adolescent literacy program for young males from Orosi and Lovell high schools called Learning Edge (LE). Learning Edge engages participants in improving their reading and writing skills through a series of literacy engagements and writing workshops that take place 1-2 times per month during the school year, and 4 days per week for 3-4 weeks during the summer intensive session. Using evidence-based approaches, Learning Edge presents students with conceptual frameworks for literacy comprehension in order to empower them as readers and writers. “Young males in California’s Central Valley lag behind females in all aspects of the academic experience,” begins Eddie. “We must create avenues of opportunity for our boys and young men in order to defy the negative statistics that paint our region.”

(Photo Credit: YMI)

Last year also saw the establishment of YMI’s first “campus”, an incubator for leadership, professional, and educational development. In partnership with Community Services Employment Training (CSET), YMI participants are offered workshops on writing resumes and interviewing for jobs, as well as classes on computers and technology. The YMI Campus also offers study sessions, and, due to the popular demand of program participants, spoken-word nights to improve public speaking skills while engaging in the creative arts. A recent addition to the YMI Campus is the Student Cupboard, which opened earlier this year. The Student Cupboard supports students suffering from food insecurity and other hardships that may impact academic achievement and personal success. The Cupboard offers free nonperishable food items, household products, hygiene products, and school supplies, and students are allowed to fill one backpack with supplies every week.

The Student Cupboard at the YMI Campus. (Photo Credit: YMI)

(Photo Credit: YMI)

(Photo Credit: YMI)

For more information on YMI and the services they provide to youth in Tulare County, please visit their website. Also be sure to keep scrolling to watch a video on the launch of the YMI Campus!

The Central Valley Community Foundation is proud to support organizations and programs like the Young Men’s Initiative, which work to support and serve youth in some of the Valley’s most vulnerable communities. For more information on grants from CVCF, please visit the Grants Overview page of our website.