Gilroy’s next generation of leaders, volunteers

Antonio Del Buono first-grade teacher Erin Bywater, left, is

– The tradition of leadership and volunteerism in Gilroy appears
safe for years to come, as a pair of local programs churn out a new
set of community activists, leaders, and mentors each year.
Gilroy – The tradition of leadership and volunteerism in Gilroy appears safe for years to come, as a pair of local programs churn out a new set of community activists, leaders, and mentors each year.

Celia Marquez, a counselor at Gavilan College and coordinator of the Puente Program, said that “people are always wanting to volunteer. They just don’t know how to get involved.”

The Puente – Spanish for “bridge” – Program and Leadership Gilroy both try to fill that void by training youths and adults to serve the community.

At Gavilan College, Marquez helps students engage in community service and build credentials to move on to four-year schools. The Puente Program takes students on college visits and raises money for student-mentor socials, helping them network with professionals in Gilroy, Morgan Hill, and San Benito County.

But the heart of the program involves cultivating volunteerism and leadership among young adults, Marquez explained.

Puente works toward that goal by sending students to an annual leadership conference and involving them in local projects over the course of their two or three years at the community college.

In addition to helping out with community events in the area, students have traveled as far as San Jose to support the Mexican-American Theater and the Hispanic Charity Ball, a fundraiser for scholarships.

“They’re incredible, these students,” Marquez said. “What we’ve seen is that once they’ve gone on to graduate from a four-year college, they’ve either become mentors or serve as a volunteer. And that’s what you want – for kids to stay involved.”

Gavilan College isn’t the only place in Gilroy turning out the next generation of community-minded leaders.

Leadership Gilroy represents the adult version of the program, teaching residents about local life and providing them with the skills to start their own grass-roots programs and take on leadership roles.

The program’s alumni list boasts several current City Council members and many other civic and community leaders.

“Our hope is that people in the community [will] find a passion, an area where they’ll donate their time or serve on boards or run for City Council or serve on school board,” said Deb Smith, the group’s current president. “We’ve had all different kinds of volunteerism.”

The nine-month program starts in January and meets at least one full Friday every month on various topics, including city government, economic development, local culture and history, and media.

Judy Hess graduated from Leadership Gilroy in 2002 and was honored as the group’s Leader of the Year in 2003. She is now in the third year of one of the goals she set during the program – to get on the board of her neighborhood board in Summerhill, a neighborhood in north Gilroy. Her board term is drawing to a close, but her involvement in the community is only increasing.

Since graduating from the program, Hess and other neighborhood volunteers have organized July 4th fireworks, neighborhood clean-up days, and a local Girl Scout troop. A leadership conference last summer led to Hess’s biggest effort to date – the Los Arroyos Neighborhood Alliance, or LANA.

She sees the Los Arroyos Park, scheduled for completion this summer, as the core of a diverse group of neighborhoods with mixed ethnic and economic makeups – Glenbrook, Los Arroyos, Summerhill, Ventana, and Monticelli Apartments, which offers affordable homes to elderly residents and low-income families.

“We thought we’d start getting all the neighborhoods talking and working together,” Hess said. The organization’s first Neighbor Day in November accomplished that goal, attracting several hundred families and netting about 20 residents interested in serving as community leaders.

Hess and the growing LANA group are planning an opening celebration for the park, as well as flower plantings, movie nights at the gazebo, and an annual Christmas event.

For Hess, the greatest virtue of Gilroy’s leadership program is simple.

“The thing that bothers me the most is what I don’t know,” she said. “If I don’t have the knowledge, I can’t get involved. Leadership Gilroy was my first step out learning about the community. It’s about learning who’s out there and how to make our city better.”

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