Helping children living in poverty to believe in themselves is a core mission of an after-school homework and tutoring program in South Orange County.
The group of women who founded the San Juan Capistrano nonprofit 14 years ago aptly named it CREER Comunidad y Familia. Creer is the Spanish word for believe.
The group founded CREER after noticing that Latino children living in poverty, for a variety of reasons, were not learning at the same level as children from middle class and affluent families.
Once given the same educational tools as everyone else, CREER kids begin to believe they, too, can go to college. They believe pursuing a fulfilling career is possible, said Angelos Ceballos, executive director of the nonprofit.
“They can see that a higher education is attainable because they are prepared,” Ceballos said. “Yes you can go to college. Yes you can do this. It is attainable.”
CREER, which serves about 500 low-income families mainly within the Capistrano Unified School District, offers after-school programs during the school year for children in pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, and then daylong programs during the summer.
Retired teachers and volunteer tutors provide instruction in math, science, writing, language, music, art, theater and arts and crafts.
“They are the ones who actually gave us their input and their knowledge,” Ceballos said. “We tutor kids. We don’t just do homework.”
Ceballos, whose background is in the construction industry, was persuaded to get involved in CREER by Ricardo Beas, owner of Ricardo’s Place Restaurant and Creer board member.
Ceballos began volunteering at CREER events and became more involved over time.
“I never volunteered in my life before,” Ceballos said. “It was an eye opener. Their mission became my mission.”
CREER uses classrooms in the back of the Saddleback Adult Education Office in San Juan Capistrano and holds after-school programs at three local schools.
“We don’t have the space that we wish to have to actually have more classrooms and serve more people,” Ceballos said. “Our goal is to have more space to serve more kids because the necessity is huge.”
The nonprofit operates on an annual budget of about $100,000 and relies heavily on fundraising events such as the Slim Man Band Party, which takes place Jan. 12 at the San Juan Hills Golf Club.
Board member Jeff Singer, who is helping to organize the concert, is a 36-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and community volunteer who was drawn to CREER’s mission after learning about its summer programs.
“That really lit a fire under me, because I thought this is exactly what the community needed,” Singer said. “This is wonderful if we can keep it financed and rolling.”
One challenge, said Singer, is getting potential supporters to see there is genuine need for CREER, since San Juan Capistrano is sometimes perceived as an affluent city.
“It’s very unnerving when you are trying to get funding,” said Ceballos, of the skewed perception of the city. There are families living on $13,000 a year.”
According to the most current data available from the United States Census Bureau, more than one-third of the city’s population of 36,000 is Latino, with more Latinos living below the poverty line than any other racial or ethnic group.
Children living within those conditions may have parents who have little education themselves or work multiple jobs and are unable to spend adequate time helping their children with academics, Singer said.
In some cases, there may not even be a quiet space in the home for a child to study.
“This is a great vehicle to overcome that,” Singer said of CREER. “What I’ve seen is that if you give these kids some help, they’ll be right up there with everybody else.”