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Bill Cirone: Partners in Education Continues to Enhance Young Lives

One of the greatest privileges of my position has been working alongside local business leaders who have volunteered their time to help guide, challenge and enhance young lives in our community through Partners in Education.

These members include company CEOs, college presidents and school district superintendents, all with institutional challenges of their own to solve, who still take the time to come together at early morning breakfast meetings to help our local young people. I have been continually impressed by their passion and commitment to our youth.

The group started out as the Community Career Development Council in 1977 and became the Industry Education Council from 1981 to 2000. The following year, the group, now named Partners in Education, attained nonprofit status, with Computers for Families as its top project, and remained steadfast in its mission. Last year, the program celebrated the distribution of its 10,000th computer to a family in need, helping bridge the Digital Divide in dramatic fashion.

When south county schools indicated the need for volunteer support, Partners devised the Volunteer Program, with support from the Santa Barbara Foundation and Orfalea Foundation in 2008. The Volunteer Program has since expanded into Santa Maria and Lompoc in collaboration with the United Boys & Girls Club of Lompoc and the Santa Maria Valley YMCA, through a partnership called the North County Volunteer Corps.

Since these programs launched, more than 130,000 hours of service have been delivered countywide to schools and nonprofits.

The initial mission of the Industry Education Council was to “develop outstanding graduates in the Santa Barbara area.” At each annual breakfast, students who have benefited from the services provided by Partners speak to the group to tell their stories and express their gratitude. This year, Carmina Acebu and John Unzueta rose to the occasion.

Carmina, a senior at Dos Pueblos High School, is an intern with Partners, making videos that highlight volunteers and interns.

“Once I completed the seven weeks of job readiness training required of every intern in the program, I was ready to start working,” she explained. “As a videographer and an editor for Partners in Education, I grew so much this past year. ... It’s become a constant reminder in my daily life now, getting to hear stories about volunteering, investing in students’ futures, giving back to the community and creating partnerships that will cultivate something great. Now tell me that doesn’t inspire you to want to do more. I know it has for me. Why else would this once-shy kid be standing up on stage right now?”

She said the people in Partners motivate her constantly to want to give back and help her fellow students, “because who doesn’t want the amazing feeing that comes with contributing to the betterment of the community?”

She added: “There is honestly the truest sense of community with Partners in Education. … These are invaluable interactions that have molded me into who I am today, and are showing me who I want to be in the future.”

Unzueta’s story was different, but equally moving. He was a junior at San Marcos High School when he first got involved with Partners in Education. In introducing him, Director Chelsea Duffy said, “He is someone who has turned his personal challenges — that no kid should have to face — into tools for good.”

Unzueta is in his third year at Westmont College pursuing a degree in economics and business with a minor in biology. His early years certainly did not make this outcome inevitable.

“When I was growing up, education was not a priority for me. In fact, I was the kid that many teachers in elementary school had hoped they would not get,” he told the audience.

He pointed to one encouraging teacher he had at that time: “Mrs. Morse at Hollister Elementary would always correct me when I said, ‘I can’t.’ She taught me to say, ‘I can’t yet.’”

When Unzueta was in junior high, his father struggled with addiction that cost him his job and the family’s home. Things were at a low point, and school remained a challenge. Mentors helped get him through.

“Jamie DeVries, teacher at San Marcos High, showed me that genuine affection and investment in people is where we as humans can find the greatest satisfaction and success in life,” Unzueta said, adding that another mentor, Miguel Milendrez, taught him to be quick to listen and slow to anger.

Among several formative experiences — REACH and Emmaus Road among them — Unzueta cited the Partners in Education Internship Program.

“Structured like a job, you apply, interview and potentially have the opportunity to participate,” he said.

He said Partners taught him about cover letters, resumes and emotional intelligence, helping provide him with the tools and desire go beyond preconceived notions of what he could be.

“Who I am today and how I want to contribute to the world is a culmination of all that this community has invested in me. All of me, has been fostered by all of you,” he said. “Can you please stand and give yourselves, along with your colleagues, a round of applause — because I am thankful beyond words.”

These are just two shining examples of success, and I continue to admire and salute Partners in Education for the work it does on behalf of our young people.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.

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