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Interview with Ava Steaffens, KidWorks

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Ava Steaffens, President and CEO of KidWorks

English Interpretation, Susana Mascia – English Editor, Laurie Baum

 

Ava Steaffens gives wings to those who do not believe they have them, and helps them to ascend. Ava transformed a small program in a Community Development Corporation to assist more than 3,000 people per year. She is visionary, tireless, and hard working

 

As a child, Ava happily accommodated herself to her family’s many geographical changes, from Miami to Cuba when she was 4 years old. She excelled in school and learned to speak a new language without any accent. Independent and determined, she decided to move to California at age 21 and to start again in a place that attracted her since she was little. She studied hard there because she knows that it is the key to the world. Ava earned a law degree and enjoys helping those most in need.

 

KidWorks gives her what her whole being yearns for—helping the needy. Her passion and faith helped her add philanthropy to her dream, and create a center that is home to an entire community, which now believes it can emerge from ignorance and poverty towards a dignified and healthy life.

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Ava Steaffens comes from an extended family, an athlete father and a very loving mother with six children who grew up in Cuba. Ava is the first and was born in Miami, Florida.

 

“My dad is Cuban, he was a baseball player in the Armendariz League in Cuba. He came here at the end of 1948 to play professional baseball in the U.S. minor leagues. My mom, French-Canadian from Quebec, left home at age 16 to settle in the United States. She first settled in New York, then in Miami, and there she met my dad. They were soon married. My dad was going many places playing baseball, the three of us traveled constantly from Miami to Cuba for his work until he decided to leave us in Cuba with his family while he was abroad. My mom learned Spanish so well that everyone believed she was Cuban,”she says happily.

Ava has five siblings, Laura, Amelia, Lina, and twins Oscar and Lucy, named after their parents. In 1959, the whole family, even the grandparents, moved permanently to Miami. Ava was only four years old when the revolution in Cuba erupted.

 

“I grew up in Hialeah, Florida. We all lived in the same block, across the street were my grandparents and my aunt Angelita, and next to them, uncle Miguel and aunt Amelita, and three houses away on the same block, Uncle Papo and Hilda and my other Uncle Paco. The whole family lived in five houses on the same block so I grew up surrounded by affection, and I think much of what I do now has to do with that kind of upbringing. We all knew each other, there was much love. Everybody was poor in those days because we had to leave everything behind. My grandfather had a business in Cuba that he left behind and my Dad, as a minor league baseball player, did not earn much money. Everyone who lived there shared the same reality,” says Ava.

 

Ava was educated in a Catholic school and continued at Notre Dame Academy in Miami. “When I started school I didn’t know English, my parents always spoke Spanish. At school there were not so many Latinos, and nuns demanded much and had no patience, but it was good for me because I learned English well and without an accent so they didn’t mock me,” says Ava.

 

Ava continued her education at Miami-Dade College for two years, then transferred to the University of Florida, Tallahassee. The family then moved to Dallas, Texas, because the factory where her dad worked moved to that city. So, all of her siblings completed their studies there. The family gathered for Christmas at her grandparents’ home in Miami, and in the summer Ava went to her parents’ home, but she could not stand the heat in Dallas. She graduated in political science with the plan to study law but she didn’t want to live in Texas, so decided to go to California, a place she loved when she visited her godmother there at age 12. Now at 21, she dedicated her first year to familiarizing herself with the area so she could decide what to do. Her godmother had moved to New York so Ava didn’t know anyone in California. She rented a room in the home of a woman who lived with her two children. Shortly after, the woman introduced her to a handsome young man, Jim.

 

“We met in November and we were married in March. Next year, we will celebrate our 35th year of being married. We are very happy. I wanted to go to UCLA, the school of law, but as he lived in Newport Beach, beautiful place, I didn’t want to move to Los Angeles so I studied at the Western State College of Law, and I graduated in1981”, she says happily.

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Do you have any children? 

I have two daughters, the first is Jessica, and three years after came Katelyn. The two of them live outside the United States. They have done to me what I did to my parents and what my parents did to their parents. Katelyn moved more than three years ago because her husband was stationed at the Marine base in Okinawa, Japan, and this August he was transferred to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. And Jessica, was married in December. Since August, she has been living in England because her husband is doing his Ph.D. in technology there. She works for KidWorks, and writes all the proposals that go to the foundations.

 

Have you ever practiced your profession as a lawyer? 

Yes, when working in Catholic Charities as a lawyer, I met Maria Inés Rayces, director of the immigration service office. She was my mentor. Catholic Charities put many restrictions on my work. The cases that interested me I could not take. I was there from 1981 to 1983, and when my daughter was born I resigned. In January of 1984, I opened a private office because I wanted to have more flexibility. María Inés came with me. She supported me a lot. We worked together very well but then she retired. I continued until 1999, taking on many cases for immigrants. Then, came the amnesty, that was a beautiful time. I had many labor certification cases. But latter, there were more cases I was not interested in and fewer for the people in need. My desire to help was in the community.

 

Ava Steaffens attended a Christian Church in the city of Irvine, New Harvest. One day the church invited her to visit the Hispanic Ministry Center, in Santa Ana, an organization founded by Dr. Larry Acosta who offered two programs, KidWorks, and Urban Youth Workers Institute.

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KidWorks was a tutoring Center that functioned in an apartment on Townsend Street. The children came after school to do their homework. It was a basic, but very nice, program in the community.

Urban Youth Workers Institute, was a leadership training program for people who worked with communities in need.

 

David Benavidez began as an Assistant in KidWorks to then become the director. He was devoted entirely to the program, and even rented an apartment on the same street to work with her while he was studying at the University. He graduated, got married and the couple bought a house there. After a few years, due to other plans, he had to leave the program.

 

Ava became a volunteer in KidWorks. One day she noted Gabby—a young woman who had graduated from the program after completing high school— and now she continued studies at Orange Coast College. “Gabby was teaching children in her community. She was the model for them. With the problems that the community had, I thought about what might happen to that girl and those children who watched her with admiration,” says Ava. Shortly after Larry propossed to her that she become the Director of KidWorks, and he told her he wanted to convert it in an independent organization. Ava has worked there since August of 1999.

 

And you began to give wings to KidWorks…

They were miracles that happened, one after the other. This independent organization of the Hispanic Ministry Center was founded in 2002 and on December 31 of that year Dan Donahue died. He admired and loved KidWorks. In early 2003, his family and friends came to inform me that they wanted to do something in memory of Dan. “We want it to benefit the community and KidWorks because he loved this program so much,” they said. They would give a party to raise funds, “Possibly, $300,000,” they said.

 

Ava thought that money could buy a house and convert it into a Community Center rather than continue renting the small apartment. She saw houses in the area, knocked at doors and spoke to many people. She found the perfect house that had empty lots on each side that were owned by the same person. She visited the owner many times, she asked her to please sell the house to her, but the owner was not interested. One day, upset, the owner told Ava she didn’t understand why she kept on visiting her if she had already told her clearly “no.” But Ava insisted, she wanted the owner to understand her vision and continued trying to convince her. One day the owner told her, “Why don’t you talk with Alfonso Calderón, the owner of the Taco Guadalajara store up front, if the only thing he does with that property is using it to store his cars?”, she said.

 

Mr. Calderón liked to work in classic antique cars. He had something like three cars in a 10,000-square-foot lot. Ava looked at the building, and thought that with only $300,000 such a property couldn’t be bought. She thanked the owner for her suggestion and ran to the city, got all the documents for the building to study them, and then she saved them. It was August 2003.

 

“Three weeks later, the Donahue’s gave the party at the Balboa Bay Club and raised more than $1,000,000, imagine! Two months later, I saw a sign for sale in Mr. Calderón’s building. I felt that it was another miracle. That was how we got this place. The Center proudly bears the name of Don Donahue”, she says happily.

 

“Ava is a wonderful person, she has done a terrific job in the community, particularly for KidWorks. We have a lot of exciting things, a lot of progress has been made over the past nine years.

Ava is a particularly caring person and has a real place in her heart for community and for people within the community. She has really devoted her career and her life to service, and service for others and the community. Ava is the Mother Teresa of KidWorks, she is the one who is the center of the wheel and the one who has worked tirelessly, and it has been her dedication and her devotion that has attracted others to offer their time, their talents and their treasures to KidWorks. It is her example and what she has done and how she has committed to the project that I think is the hallmark of the entire KidWorks program. Ava is a real pillar in the community,” says Terry Donahue.

 

The Donahue family continues to produce miracles. The Center offers an annual Foundation for Success Luncheon, they take care of all its costs and in 2012 have raised $400,000. It is a very simple lunch, not even a glass of wine is served, and most of the assistants are friends of theirs.

 

What does KidWorks do today?

We have about 550 children and young people, not only here but in two more centers, one in Townsend and the other at Bishop Manor, and for two years we have a special mentoring program at four secondary schools, Century High School, Valley High School, Saddleback High School, and at Lorin Griset Academy. There are five mentors, AmeriCorps members, who do voluntary work full time. We have one in the Center and the other four at each school site, working every day of the week and each has a group of 20 to 25 students that pose risks.

 

How did you find those mentors?

By being part of Building Healthy Communities in Santa Ana, an initiative of 10 years, from 2010 to 2020. They chose 14 areas throughout California, and downtown Santa Ana is one of them. Our role is to attract and positively impact the youth of this city. We have a 40-member Board, which meets every month and strives for the improvement of the community and the health of community members, not only their physical and mental health, but community safety and education.

 

What other programs the Center offers?

We have the preschool, which is for children 4 years old. We receive much support from the County Department of Education, Healthy Smiles, Choc Hospital, Children and Family Commission. We have a Director, Idalia Galdamez, two teachers, Alma and Arminda, and an assistant, Amelia. The teachers teach in the preschool, which is licensed, and resources come from the State Department of Education.

 

How much does it cost to send a child to preschool?

Nothing, they only have to apply and to be eligible. They have to live in the area, in this community, and the fewer resources the family has, the higher they climb on the list. There is a waiting list of approximately 600 children in the city of Santa Ana. All licensed preschools in Santa Ana are filled from this list. We already have plans to triple the number enrolled in preschool, currently there are only 48 children ages 3-4 that we are preparing for Kindergarten.

 

What does the child have to do to attend after school?

The family and child are registered here, but that only qualifies the child whose parents are ready to get involved and take part in their child’s education. They pay $40 per year, so they value the program. Children from Kindergarten to the 3rd grade come from 3:30 or 4:30 pm to 6 pm, and after 6 pm, the middle school and high school students come.

 

Is there a date to register?

Registration runs from August to early September. There is a waiting list of up to two years for after-school classes, but we are waiting for the city permit for the expansion plan that we presented for the adjunct building, which is the same size as the current building.

 

The after-school programs try to instill in the children the desire to continue studying at the university level. They are structured in four pillars, one is academic and art, the other is leadership development and spirituality. The program considers the person as a whole, his health and physical conditions, his preparation to attend college and pursue the career he choses. The youth receive help with homework and tutoring Monday through Thursday; Friday is free. They can choose which class to take and only four days a year they have a day called Spirit Day, a day dedicated to one particular subject.

 

Art is taught on Monday; on Tuesday, they experiment with science; on Wednesday, they develop their character and responsibility; on Thursday, they learn about colleges and universities with the intention of becoming familiar with them. On Fridays, they choose between karate, dance, music, poetry, soccer or computer. The older ones can use computers to do their projects, but the kids use computers only when they are given a class. There is always supervision and the screens look outward so we know what they are doing all the time. On Saturdays, they have music classes with volunteer Korean teachers who raise funds to buy instruments, violins, cellos and more.

 

KidWorks boasts a gym. The coach is Alfredo, who graduated from the Center. At the end of the year, he’ll graduate from Orange Coast College. He dreams of entering Chapman University. He wants to take political science to then study law. In addition, the Center has a “composting” program, which is the process of converting organic waste into fertilizer. There are families that have registered and gather all residue from meals, The Center collects the materials, and take them to the community garden Green Project has at the Jerome Park, where they have asked the city to establish a permanent program.

 

You don’t stop!

You cannot stop because the needs keep on growing, and the more the community gets involved, the better! My dream is for all this to be directed by the youngsters who have grown up here, who have developed here and for them to go to the University, and come back and take up leadership roles not only for KidWorks but for the city, the country, why not?

 

“Ava Steaffens has inspired many souls, young and old, to become productive members of our society. By the sacrifices she has made, which very few know of, she has shown that a true leader like herself is not concerned with accolades or recognition. A true leader challenges herself and takes the necessary steps so others, inspired by her passion and her efforts, will also challenge themselves to become better servants. Ava is concerned, and has been for a long time with one thing: that the children in Santa Ana along with their families know and believe that there’s so much within their grasp, so much more that they can become given the right opportunities, and so much more they can offer, as long as someone lends a hand to lead them, and offers an ear so they can be heard. From the run-down rented apartment units in the beginning, to the beautiful lively facility which now houses KidWorks, Ava has led with a smile, a helping hand, and a vision to inspire…with care” – José Mota, Spanish language commentator for Angels Baseball; English radio and TV analyst. A native of Santo Domingo, Mota is the son of longtime Dodger, Manny Mota.

What is your message to the Hispanic family?

Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers. Parents should never leave that responsibility to others. Migrant families, as they do not know the system neither speak the language, think that they don’t know what they are doing or that they do not have enough knowledge and lose their self-esteem as parents. But, it is not a question of language, the important thing is to share with their children the stories they have. They don’t even need to know how to read, what they need is to have an open communication with their children and continue teaching them everything they have inside of them. Because children, yes, they do listen, although they pretend they don’t, and they are waiting to receive direction from their parents, always.

 

What is the most serious problem that you note?

There are many…I think that the level of education that we see in Santa Ana is a very serious problem and we must try to change it. Not only the parents but also the schools. Many teachers say that parents are not involved, and here are so many parents that sometimes we do not know what to do. We all have the responsibility to improve the educational level of the city. Each one has to do his or her part. For that reason, we give education courses for parents, when the family registers here. They not only agree they will be volunteers but also they have to complete their hours of education; there are classes for parents of all levels.

 

At what time are these classes?

In the morning, and at night; we have classes for single Dads and Moms. Also, there are support groups for women and others, such as for couples. We offer classes with our staff to the youngest Dads in the San Jose Workshop, to teach them how to be present as fathers in their families, how to treat their spouses, how to communicate with their children, how to handle money and how to prepare for a job.

 

Why do you persist in doing so many things?

Education for me was that opportunity that no one could take from me, that opened so many doors for me, it opened the world to me and when I see the situation of the community here, I have a dream, I want them to start acting and seeing there can be a future for them too. It is not just for their children but for everyone and if they do not act, it is possible their children will have no future either, because it is linked. Today I feel that we are awakening the community.

 

“Another serious situation facing the community is the stress that families feel because of poverty. When you do not have resources to have your own apartment, children grow up in an environment with much stress. And, they go outside and see others selling drugs for money, causing more imbalances in children and young people. It is not that we have solutions for everything but it is necessary to at least know the problems “ she adds concerned.

 

How is your relationship with your family given how busy you are?

Glorious. I speak with my sisters almost every day. My Dad now lives in Miami and after Mom’s death, he married a very nice Cuban lady. Mom died six years ago. She was sick for six months and the last month we all accompanied her. There was much peace and tranquility in that room, it was an unforgettable experience.

 

Is your husband Cuban?

No, my husband is American, he was born in Santa Ana. He tries to speak Spanish. He loves acting as if he speaks, it is very funny, I laugh a lot with him. We get along very well. He worked at MacDonald Douglas as a flight inspector. He loves aircrafts. He always was on the first flight of each plane built to review the systems. He is now semi-retired. He does sales at his friend’s business, not seeking work or sales, when he is called, he sells. He loves coming to the Center, and gets along very well with young people.

 

For her commitment to the Building Healthy Communities initiative, Ava works unceasingly to complete all her ambitious projects and hopes to buy the building next door to expand the Center, open the Health and Fitness Center and Covered Sport Center which could help to 400 students more, and a large lot for parking, where they will also play basketball outside. Besides other collaborators, the Sage Foundation, is committed to give one million dollars for this project.

And in January, another small Center opens in Madison Park, similar to the one in Townsend and the one at Bishop Manor. They all operate under the same model, where the parents should become involved, take classes and other responsibilities.

 

The Mission of KidWorks is to restore neighborhoods at risk—one life at a time, improving them through education and prospects for sustainability of children and young people living in Santa Ana, Orange County. KidWorks was founded in 1993 and incorporated in 2002 as a non profit organization for underprivileged children and their families offering preschool programs, after school tutoring, mentoring for youth, adult education and leadership development programs. Ava has embodied her undeniable seal in KidWorks, and she has awakened a community that now knows that they can also succeed.

 

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