Valentina Rivera sits by the fountain in Lytton Plaza in downtown Palo Alto on Dec. 21, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.Posted December 24, 2022
Able Works wants to break the cycle of poverty, one youth at a time
Nonprofit helps young people through education, counseling and other support services
by Gennady Sheyner / Palo Alto Weekly
Wen Valentina Rivera moved from Cali to California six years ago, her hopes and dreams far eclipsed her resources and connections.
Growing up in Cali, a coastal city in southwest Colombia, she was accustomed to an environment of poverty and violence. Her mother, coming off a recent divorce, made the fateful decision to move to the United States in search of better opportunities for herself and her children. Arriving here at 14, Rivera spoke no English and had no support system to help her advance her dreams of going to college.
Now 20, Rivera juggles two jobs — as a tutor at Menlo-Atherton High School and as a receptionist at a Palo Alto hair salon — while working toward a sociology degree at University of California, Berkeley. In the little off time she has, she helps to take care of her four siblings, who range in age from three months to 10 years old.
"On the days I'm not in school, I'm working," Rivera said in an interview, when asked about how she manages her various duties. "I dedicate all my time to school whenever I can. I don't know how I do it, but I do it."
Like many immigrants, she faced a circuitous path toward academic and professional success. In her freshman year at Menlo-Atherton High School, Rivera made a serious push to learn English, with the goal of getting proficient enough to get into a top college. At the same time, she knew that to win admission to Berkeley, she would need to take some of the most challenging classes that the high school had to offer.
By the time she finished high school, she knew that she would have to defer her Berkeley dream. Unable to get admission initially, she opted to enroll in DeAnza College with the goal of ultimately transferring.
Rivera, who is now in her freshman year at Berkeley, said she wouldn't have met her goal if not for Able Works, a nonprofit that provides education, counseling and other support services for young people from low-income and immigrant backgrounds. Its two flagship programs, FutureProfits and AchieveAble, target high school and community college students, respectively. In the 2020-21 academic year, Able Works worked with 84 students in the Sequoia and Menlo-Atherton high schools, as well as with 17 students from local community colleges, including Foothill, DeAnza and Canada.
Able Works, which last year received a $10,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund , sees itself as much more than an educational organization. Since its inception in 2001, the nonprofit has assisted communities in East Palo Alto with everything from food insecurity to inadequate banking services. One of its early programs helped establish a credit union in East Palo Alto.
Its bread and butter, however, is working with youths to overcome systemic challenges that keep low-income families in a cycle of poverty. Through its educational programs, Able Works isn't just building skills, it is also building dreams. The nonprofit's founder, John Liotti, noted in an interview that the students in low-income families often have a hard time envisioning a path toward a college degree, successful careers and a well-paying job. Schools often engage these students through a very "cookie-cutter" approach, Liotti said, and "tracking them toward low-income jobs and lesser opportunities."
"That's why we really wanted to do a little more vision casting for the students and helping them see the horizon, especially here in Silicon Valley, where there's so much opportunity," Liotti said. "But kids from marginalized communities don't often see themselves in those opportunities or know how to access them."
The organization focuses on financial education, decision-making skills and general life skills, Liotti said. In doing so, it takes a holistic approach that looks at the "whole person," he added.
"We found there's a lot of students that are just relegated to positions that their parents were in, like construction — not bad trades per se, but we feel like certain kids have greater gifts that are often overlooked."
Children from immigrant families and low-income communities often get overlooked by existing institutions and public agencies, which tend to focus on two ends of a bell curve: those who get special attention because they get involved in the criminal-justice system and those whose affluent backgrounds give them ample access to tutoring, counseling and other services. Able Works targets those in the middle: youth who are working to climb out of poverty but have few resources to boost their efforts.
Students at junior colleges, Liotti noted, generally lack the types of communities and support systems that their counterparts in four-year colleges enjoy. They commute to school and often shoulder numerous responsibilities.
"Our students are really brave," he said. "They balance engaging in their family, helping to secure their families and also working and going to school. It's pretty amazing what some of them do."
Able Works tries to address these unique challenges by hosting weekly meetings and creating cohorts of students so that they can journey together and support one another.
The nonprofit has had to evolve over time to meet the growing challenges. During the foreclosure crisis that accompanied the 2008 crash in the housing market, Able Works did foreclosure counseling for East Palo Alto residents and helped save more than 500 homes, Liotti said. It also launched a program for single mothers, who met in cohorts to receive coaching, mental-health assistance, legal counseling and other services.
And more recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it worked with donors to raise about $250,000 in relief funds for participants in their programs — money that was used for housing and food assistance.
"When COVID hit, we had to help these families. We're not a relief organization, but these aren't just random members of our programs — these are families we care about," Liotti said.
Initially focused mainly on East Palo Alto, Able Works now has programs in the East Bay, the south bay and Central Valley. Liotti said that East Palo Alto once had plenty of access to affordable housing. That is no longer the case and families now have to move to wherever they can find housing.
"Our core is that we serve marginalized, under-resourced youth, but we had to expand it from beyond the borders of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven into the greater region because that's where the kids are living now," Liotti said.
It has continued to evolve, streamlining its curriculum and enhancing its data-gathering efforts. It is surveying students, teachers and volunteers to get feedback and refine its programs. Liotti said the organization is also paying extra attention to some of the recent trends that have reshaped the job market: the disappearance of many entry level jobs because of automation (a trend that is visible at most bank branches and McDonald's restaurants) and the acceleration of remote work, which makes self-discipline more critical than ever.
"Things are changing faster than I've ever seen them change," Liotti said. "And change could be good or bad, based on how we respond. Our goal is to remain nimble and innovative so that we're constantly changing to meet challenges that are often emerging month to month."
Rivera believes that without the counseling she had received in the AchieveAble program, she would not be going to Berkeley today. She recalled the weekly meetings, at which students shared their goals, and the field trips that Able Works organized for program participants: hiking in a park, playing miniature golf and painting. She received help in building a resume, getting professional headshots and landing a job. And she received weekly one-on-one check-ins with a counselor who made sure she was advancing in her goal.
"It wasn't just one aspect; it was school goals, financial goals, personal goals. We'd set them and check in every time to see how I was doing and what I can do better to achieve these goals," Rivera said. "The support and the love that I got was amazing."
She said that she wouldn't hesitate to recommend the nonprofit's programs to other students.
"I see many people when they go off to college, after high school they're very lost," she said. "They don't know what to do and they don't seek a person who supports them. I feel AchieveAble is a perfect place for them. Someone is constantly reaching out to you, supporting you in everything you need — financially, personally, academically."