Lynda and Stewart Resnick are world-class philanthropists. In the past they have invested their charitable dollars in organizations and people whom they believed could get the job done, whatever that job may have been. You may recall that they donated multi-millions to build the imposing Resnick Pavilion at LACMA (L.A. County Museum of Art.) They helped finance the vitally-important Aspen Institute and the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. I once visited the Resnick Sustainability Institute at CalTech, and I know of a dozen other causes which they don't want to discuss. So I was rather interested, even amazed, when I attended a meeting at the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce this week, where several community leaders discussed their current endeavors, and it was Lydna Resnick who knocked me on my heels with her impassioned speech.
What she said was that she had an 'epiphany' about four years ago. "On that day I finally realized that I knew too much. Too much about the suffering of 2 billion people on our planet who live on less that $2 a day. Too much about people without education and access to medical care. Too much about social injustice on a global scale." Lynda told us that she decided that she now wanted to do some of the work herself, not simply write a check for others. "I wanted to bring some of my business acumen and problem-solving expertise to our giving... to get more personally involved." This from a woman with a successful 50-year business career who is vice-chairman of Roll Global, an international company with holdings in agriculture, Fiji Water, POM, Teleflora and many other enterprises.
What prompted this? It turns out that Lynda discovered by chance that a a large portion of her company's employees live and work in the Central Valley, near dusty, dingy Bakersfield. "I didn't have to look to Africa, the Middle East or South America to find the need... only in my own backyard." As she dug into their living situation, she realized that it was untenable... and was determined to do something about it. Her efforts launched the Central Valley Leadership Project, a multi-pronged program that focuses on K-12 education initiatives, nutures future leaders and transforms low-income and undeserved towns into hopeful and vibrant communities.
She described how she visited a little hamlet called Lost Hills, in California's Central Valley, where many of these employees lived. It is 45 miles northwest of Bakersfield and 145 mile from this spot in Beverly Hills where she was speaking. "This is our company's backyard... some 4,000 of our people live there... working in our plants and orchards harvesting and processing our pistachios and almonds, our amazing 'Cuties' (citrus) and ruby-red pomegranates." She went on to describe how Lost Hills was a microcosm of many of the small towns in the Central Valley, with poor living conditions, lack of community infrastructure, education challenges, disinterested government and law enforcement, health and safety issues for families and their children. They had little hope and no future. Lynda teared up as she told of towns with no real schools, no hospitals, many without sidewalks... little of anything to sustain a decent life.
Yes, this was the epiphany. "We began as we would for any other project... with research. For six months we conducted a series of focus groups and interviews. We visited several cities in Kern and Kings Counties, the heart of the Central Valley. We not only talked with our own employees but we reached out to educators, city planners, community resource providers, mayors and city council members, county-level employees and, of course, the local population." Lynda went on to explain. "It was through these months of discovery and dialogue that we hit on a key lesson: people care most about the things that touch their lives every single day. In the Central Valley, that means family. We thought we knew what people should worry about... compromised water systems the worst air in America, lack of healthy food, a high incidence of diabetes and poor health care, to name a few."
"But when we met with people in local communities and listened to what they had to say, that wasn't what we were hearing. The questions they were asking were: How can we keep our children safe? How do we provide them after-school and summer activities? How do we give them hope, education and opportunities? We discovered in our research that 41 percent of households in Lost Hills have at least one person who works for us. Through careful listening, we discovered that they needed to have pride in their town and hope for their children."
Lynda then told us how she and her team went about trying to help in this dire situation. "First, we focused on improving the leadership and civic engagement. With the Dolores Huerta Foundation, we conducted house meetings and community forums to encourage residents to talk to each other and work on creating a unified voice to talk to others. We worked closely with emerging leaders to help them gain the confidence and leadership skills to advocate on their own behalf, to participate in elections, to overcome fears about immigration, to understand why environmental health issues matter to them."
She described how the local youth have gravitated to leadership opportunities, and several organized groups of Lost Hill teenagers have emerged, including a book club called 'The Page Turners' that reads together and to younger kids, as well a a youth leadership group called 'Lost Hills: Generation Found.' She went on to describe their second area of focus: to create en environment in which they could live in dignity. They transformed a once-dilapidated public space into a vibrant, active 10-acre Park and Community Center. Today, that park features a basketball court, a volleyball court, and a new soccer field, with bleachers, a jungle gym and playgrounds, a mile-long walking path with solar-powered lights to illuminate the park at night...even a splash pool to keep the kids cool in summer. There's a new Rec Center for classes for moms and even ballet classes for little ones. English-language classes, you get the idea.
But she then went on to describe the physical changes they made in the towns... widening of streets and adding bike lanes, installation of sidewalks gutters, stop signs, trees and street lights... things we all take for granted, but which had not been been present there. Local health challenges were very much a concern, and Lynda told us how they went about working on them. A free fully-staffed health clinic open to all their employees and family members, serving over 8,000 people. Free preventive and holistic care, a model for the delivery of rural health care.
But these cosmetic changes and even the health care centers go only so far, so Lynda then told us about her top priority today -- to invest in the next generation of Central Valley residents, and to try and make a difference in education. "The local educational system is not preparing these kids for a successful future. Nearly 40 percent of them drop out of school before their senior year in high school. So we have created many initiatives... college scholarships for the children of every one of our employees, who only need to achieve a minimal grade average to attend a two- or four-year college. We've awarded almost 700 college scholarships to date. Pre-school is so important, and we have begun a unique full-time pre-school program to help children grow physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially."
But Lynda was most excited about a new program she called CAREER TECH. "The days of the farm worker as unskilled labor are coming to a close. Sure, we will always need workers to pick the fruit, but our farming operations are employing technologies to a dramatically-escalating scale....and this requires a more sophisticated and better-educated work force. Those workers will be coming from our local communities. Even at time of high unemployment there are still 3 million open jobs that remain unfilled because of a mismatch between the supply of trained graduates and the need. It's even a national security threat since 75 percent of American youth do not qualify for the armed forces due to a lack of high school diploma, obesity, or a criminal record. California's investment on education per student ranks 47th out of 50 states! Providing hands-on career training, apprenticeships and summer job opportunities is an area where all of us can make a real difference. So we are working to prepare young people for jobs that actually exit. Starting in the 9th grade, we'll take interested kids and give them training in our plants and on our farms.
Lynda ended her talk to the Beverly Hills Chamber by exhorting us all to help young people in our own backyards. Harness the power of the private sector to recruit employers who will make a commitment to provide summer youth employment. It isn't a pure act of altruism...it's good business... a way to build a talent pipeline within our own industry. Invest in our most precious resource... our kids! She ended on a hopeful note: "I hope you think about what else you can do to create change right in your own back yard. We can change our world... one community, one workplace, one child at a time."
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