Andra Belknap, Ojai Valley News reporter
A group of friends met for lunch at Casa de Lago in Ojai one afternoon in 2015, and an idea to inspire the community to volunteer in local schools was born.
According to Fawn Parish, she and her friends began chatting to a group of young people about what students in Ojai need to succeed. The response was immediate, said Parish, “they said they needed mentoring.”
Since then, the four women have spent the past 18 months meeting with each Ojai Unified School District (OUSD) principal and OUSD Superintendent Hank Bangser.
According to the women, they learned many local students have few caring, non-school-related adults in their lives. This, they said, has significant community-wide negative outcomes.
That's why the women hope at least 500 Ojai Valley residents will take up their challenge to give one hour of their time this year to a local school.
They named their effort Inspire because they want to inspire people in business, service clubs and the faith community to use their life experience to benefit one of the eight public schools in Ojai.
Parish attended elementary school in Ojai, and was once a child in need of support, experiencing bullying at the hands of her peers.
“What we're dreaming of is something that goes way past our lifetimes,” said Parish, “If you live in Ojai, you give an hour to the schools.”
“We met with every principal, and said, 'Give us your wish list. If we could mobilize all of Ojai, what do you need and what do you want?'” she continued.
“Each school has their own separate needs,” said Jana Fletcher, one of the Inspire founders who raised three daughters in town. “But, overall, the big one is men. There's just so many kids that don't have men in their life … a positive male figure. One of the things that really surprised us is how many kids are in homes that are just barely making it financially. The look of Ojai comes off as this very wealthy community, that is not the case when it comes to our children.”
According to OUSD figures, 44 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price meals during the 2015-2016 school year.
While some good is already coming because of the Inspire challenge, the group expects to formally launch after Labor Day, said Parish. OUSD schools go back into session Aug. 24.
Over the summer months, the group discovered Mira Monte Elementary School's teacher's lounge needed additional chairs and a table, so they went out and found furniture.
Fletcher recalled a Mira Monte janitor's remark that the teacher's lounge chairs had been around as long as he had.
Nordhoff High School Principal Greg Bayless is supportive of the group's work. “Kids need more loving, caring, inspirational adults in their lives,” he said. “I don't think we have a specific plan yet, I'm just happy the conversation has started.”
Bayless acknowledged that it's easier to get adults involved with younger children, but hopes the women of Inspire can help him formulate a plan to create lasting mentorships between local teens and adults.
“Getting them to be beyond guest speakers in careers is the challenge,” he said.
Ojai Valley News publisher Tim Dewar said the newspaper has committed to partner with Inspire to help reach this year's goal. To that end, he said, the newspaper will provide space on its website where those interested can go to get information about how to volunteer as well as to see updates about what Inspire volunteers are doing.
“Last year, we started bringing in students from public and private schools to work with them to produce our monthly Student Union section,” Dewar noted. “That was so successful in terms of mentoring those students that it was easy for me to see the benefits the Inspire project can have.”