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Wind In Their Sails

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a steamy summer day, 11-year-old Diana Ruiz and her friends are expertly paddling and sailing boats amid the yachts of Newport Bay.

The 33 pre-adolescents look as if they’ve summered by the sea all their lives. Two years ago, most of them could barely dog-paddle.

These kids from a working-class neighborhood of Huntington Beach are being given an unusual boost through their school years by a Newport Beach couple who decided a lucrative stock option would best be spent on providing some mostly poor pre-teens a chance at tutoring, swimming and sailing--enrichment activities long out of reach for the less affluent.

Driven to help give others a boost through life, executive Jack Shaw and community college professor Ellen Shockro created the El Viento foundation two years ago. They started with a promise to all willing fourth-graders at Oak View Elementary School: Stick with sailing, after-school tutoring and weekend field trips from fourth grade through high school, and your community college tuition will be free.

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It’s too soon to know if Diana and her classmates will indeed complete the program. But already, the children--and their parents--are daring to dream things they never thought about two years ago.

“I know now that I can do anything,” said Diana one recent morning after a rowing trip across Newport Bay. “I just don’t know what I want to do yet.”

Enthralled by the periodic table and science lessons, she has thought lately of becoming a chemical engineer.

Watching the water from a sliver of sandy beach, her mother seems almost unwilling to believe that strangers are covering the cost of her daughter’s sailing lessons. Estela Ruiz barely risks acknowledging the promised community college scholarship.

“We haven’t talked much about it, but Diana wants to continue school,” said Ruiz, her broad face prematurely etched with worry. “We are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I believe only God knows what will happen. But Diana knows that if she continues, there’s a scholarship for her.”

Already these children have traveled a tremendous physical and psychological journey.

They have learned to swim, first selling chocolates after school to purchase bathing suits from Target. Slowly, they are mastering the tricky rudder control and tacking of sabots--small wood and fiberglass sailboats. For some, the four-mile trek from their neighborhood to the bay was their first trip to the Pacific.

Oak View teachers who helped found El Viento have witnessed other encouraging changes. The kids stand straighter, raise their hands more often in class and bring home better grades. They also use English more readily outside school, even in their Spanish-dominant neighborhood.

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“If the program ends tomorrow, these children’s lives will be forever changed,” said fourth-grade teacher Elizabeth Garcia, who worked with the El Viento students when the program began. “Nothing will ever be the same.”

As the name suggests, El Viento stresses sailing as the gust of wind that can push disadvantaged children toward college. But there’s plenty of other help steering them along.

They are to receive after-school tutoring when biology or other subjects baffle. They take Saturday swimming classes and school skills classes at Golden West College, attend educational field trips to the Long Beach aquarium and the Bolsa Chica wetlands, and participate in six weeks of sailing, kayaking and rowing camp in the summer.

The daylong camp begins at 9 a.m., when the children, in Pokemon caps, soccer shorts and red-and-white El Viento T-shirts, gather in their school parking lot. Waiting for the bus to the Sea Scout base, the children play ball and watch their neighborhood awaken. Stroller-pushing mothers take their infants on walks before the heat of the day. Some of their classmates buzz by on bikes.

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The bus, loaned by Coast Community College District, picks them up and ferries them from the car dealerships on Beach Boulevard to the expanse of luxury homes and yacht clubs down Coast Highway. Their pensiveness yields to giddiness.

At the Sea Scout base, teacher Andrew Carr, who supervises El Viento summer activities, instructs the students to write in their journals. The disparity of academic skills is most apparent here: Some of the students still struggle to eke out three or four English sentences in their wire-bound journals. Others fill out a page in no time, with only a few grammatical slips.

The children know when to fetch their yellow life preservers. Overseen by Carr and four Boy Scout sailing instructors, the youngsters ready their boats. One recent day, four boys rigged their sabots with a rudder and raised their sails. Still unfamiliar with all the technical tics of sailing, the boys occasionally wound up in irons (their sails limp from lack of wind), but they righted themselves without much trouble.

Most of the others preferred the relative simplicity of rowing. Newly freckled from the sun, they worked their arms in circles with surprising skill. Giovanni Gomez, 11, was among the rowers.

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“You can get a really good education because of El Viento--you learn how to sail, kayak, row, swim,” said Giovanni, his black hair spiky from the water. “No one gets these opportunities, I think. Almost no one.”

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Expanded opportunities were the goal of founders Shaw and Shockro. A former executive with Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group and WellPoint Health Network Inc., Shaw grew up poor but climbed the business ladder. He recently served as dean of the Peter F. Drucker Graduate Management Center at Claremont Graduate University and owns his own consulting firm.

Shaw’s father died when he was young, and his mother, who had worked in a factory during World War II, struggled to find work when the men returned home to reclaim their industrial jobs. Shaw and his mother moved from Fort Worth, Texas, to Massachusetts, where she made a living selling brushes and cosmetics at house parties.

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Despite that, Shaw, 65, said he grew up relatively privileged. His parents were educated. It was expected that he would attend college. Time in the Air Force during the Korean War gave him confidence.

His wife of five years, Shockro, was raised in a more affluent, philanthropic family in New York. A professor of history and humanities at Pasadena City College, Shockro, 56, has taught everything from junior high to graduate school, and has served on several nonprofit boards, including Girls Inc. and Pacific Crest Outward Bound.

When Shaw left WellPoint several years ago, he came out with stock options worth about $65,000. To him, it was “found money.” It soon would become given money. Applying their idealism, diverse backgrounds and love of the sea (Shaw is an avid sailor, Shockro a swimmer), the couple set out to create their foundation. They believe water sports promote teamwork, responsibility, confidence and vital math and science skills that students need for their academic and personal futures.

Working with William M. Vega, chancellor of the Coast Community College District, and Ken Yglesias, president of Golden West College, the couple picked Oak View School, where many students are poor and lack English fluency.

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Inspired by a handful of programs that offer college tuition to disadvantaged students, El Viento was born. In addition to their seed money, Shaw and Shockro have talked schools, agencies and volunteers into helping with aspects of the program, thus keeping costs down.

“The real purpose here is to get children directed toward college,” said Shockro, who serves as El Viento’s executive director. “This shows that you don’t have to have millions and millions of dollars to make a difference. A lot of people give to the arts. Well, we give to kids.”

The program was open to any fourth-grader at the school who applied two years ago. There were no academic or financial requirements. Forty-one students joined initially, eight of whom left the program because of family relocation, difficulties with the time commitment or other problems.

The early success of the program has inspired Shockro and Shaw to try expanding to a second fourth-grade class. They have produced a brochure seeking contributions ($500 to sponsor one child for a year, $5,000 to sponsor a child for a decade, $20,000 to sponsor a class for a year, $200,000 to sponsor a class for a decade) that they are distributing to a large network of family, friends and business associates. Already, foundation board members and others have donated time and money to the fund.

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The ideal is an endowment of $2 million, which would generate enough interest to keep the program alive for years, Shaw said.

“I’m committed to this class, even if I never raise another dime,” Shaw said. “I’m committed to this class, even if it takes personal funds, because I promised them. It’s a done deal, as far as I’m concerned. When Ellen and I are gone, what’s left in our estates will go to El Viento.”

Juan Benitez, 10, and his parents are counting on that promise.

Juan, son of a factory worker and a gardener, said he is concentrating more on his studies since El Viento began. He’s trying to bring his spelling skills up to his A+ math performance.

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“I was shy back then,” Juan said. “Now I’ve met new people, new teachers. Now I’m happy. I feel like a lucky kid.”


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