Due to its remote location and lack of convenient public transportation, the Cutler-Orosi community is geographically isolated. The nearest “big city” neighbor is Visalia – a 30 mile roundtrip by car, or 2 hour trip by bus. These conditions mean that youth in Cutler-Orosi have very limited access to the resources they need to prepare them for high school graduation and post-secondary education, and in order to access these resources, they must venture outside of their community. Recognizing this, Community Services Employment Training decided to bring the resources to these youth, rather than the other way around.

Over 16 years ago, Community Services Employment Training (CSET) began implementing Youth Leadership programs throughout Tulare County to provide youth with the tools needed to engage and succeed in their communities, schools, and their own lives. Unfortunately, due to a lack of county-wide funding, the only Youth Leadership program still in existence is the one in Cutler-Orosi. Cutler-Orosi’s Youth Leadership program evolved over time to respond to the needs and wants of its youth, becoming more math-, science-, and technology-focused. This led to the creation of TECH Connect in 2009, a nine-month technology learning and service initiative for youth ages 14-18 and who are currently enrolled as juniors or seniors at Orosi High School or Lovell Continuation School in Cutler.

TECH Connect teaches teens about computer repair, refurbishment, and electronic recycling, and exposes participants to careers related to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field. As the Cutler-Orosi community is predominantly low-income, most program participants don’t have access to a computer or the Internet at home. As such, TECH Connect is an invaluable resource for the community’s underserved youth. Students not only hone their technological skills through the program but also gain college readiness skills through participating in college and university campus tours, receiving one-on-one support through the college application process, financial aid research, and applying for scholarships and grants.

According to The American Community Survey, in 2014, of the nearly 13,000 residents living in Cutler-Orosi, 62% of adults did not have a high school diploma or equivalent and only 2% held a Bachelor’s degree or higher. TECH Connect not only helps students enroll in post-secondary institutions, but also increases the likelihood that program participants will experience academic success once they are there. Incredibly, since the program’s inception nearly ten years ago, TECH Connect has seen a 100% college enrollment rate for graduating seniors. For some program alumni, college was never considered a possibility until they participated in TECH Connect, as told by 2014 program alumni Naylei Saucedo, now studying at UC Berkeley: “I had never been to UC Berkeley until we went on a field trip there [through TECH Connect]. If it wasn’t for TECH Connect, I would never have even imagined that UC Berkeley would be a possibility for me.”

TECH Connect students on a campus tour. (Photo Credit: CSET)

TECH Connect students are also given numerous opportunities through the program to give back to their community by facilitating computer skills classes for local residents, educating middle school students on the benefits of a post-secondary education, and even filing tax returns at no cost for low-income community members through the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. With this service learning component, students have the chance to apply what they learn in a real-world environment. With a grant from the Central Valley Community Foundation, CSET was able to offer this program to 30 Lovell Continuation School and Orosi High School students ages 14-19 during the 2016-17 school year. Though only 30 slots were available, CSET received dozens of applications from interested teens hoping to secure a coveted spot in the program.

A TECH Connect participant proudly shows off her IRS VITA certificate. During the 2015 tax season, TECH Connect participants completed 173 tax returns, funneling over $250,000 back to the small, rural community of Cutler-Orosi. (Photo Credit: CSET)

TECH Connect students test some equipment. (Photo Credit: CSET)

TECH Connect students inspect the interior workings of a computer. (Photo Credit: CSET)

The grant to CSET from the Central Valley Community Foundation was made possible by the Mitsuoka Endowment Fund for Dinuba, Reedley, Cutler-Orosi, and Orange Cove. Dorothy Mitsuoka was a successful citrus farmer with a passion for education. She wanted to help children in the Dinuba area, where she lived, to reach their academic dreams since she’d never been able to go to college herself. Her generosity and work ethic were unrivaled, her friends recall. To her, a college education was the most valuable thing a child could receive.

Before Dorothy Mitsuoka passed away from cancer in 2008, she planned for CVCF to receive her bequest gift of the citrus orchards she farmed. Her bequest gift is creating opportunities for youth in the Dinuba area to continue their education. Included in her will are instructions for an endowed fund within CVCF that will continue to change the lives of the children she held so dear.

For more information about CSET and TECH Connect, please visit their website.

The Central Valley Community Foundation is proud to support organizations and programs like CSET’s TECH Connect, which work to serve underserved communities and provide youth with opportunities for educational and career success. For more information on grants from CVCF, please visit the Grants Overview page of our website.