While in elementary school, Lesly Dominguez knew she did not want to end up like her older brother — lost to drugs and gangs.
She watched her mom struggle to pay bills, she felt a heightened sense of protectiveness over her little brother, and she knew her family needed her to take on a bigger role for them.
The loneliness she felt was overwhelming, but she had no one to tell.
When she got to Brea Junior High School, someone in the halls noticed she needed a life preserver and handed her one.
This person was a counselor from Project Kinship, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that helps those who have experienced trauma, been marginalized, abandoned, or are struggling.
But their greatest goal is to let kids know there is a safe place where they can heal, so kids like Lesly, can transform.
“Meeting Vanessa from Project Kinship was like coming up for fresh air. I felt saved …. they did such a good job in making me think I can get somewhere, I can be something, and I can help my family out,” said Dominguez, now 17. “They helped me get my stuff together. It felt good to be understood … as if someone was listening to me.”
Project Kinship works with the Brea Education Foundation (BEF) at Brea Olinda High School, Brea Canyon High School, Brea Junior High School, Arovista Elementary School, and Laurel Elementary School.
The successful program is among the those supported by the North Orange County Public Safety Collaborative, funded for four years in 2017 for $20 million through a grant secured by State Sen. Josh Newman for youth violence prevention and intervention, reentry services and homeless outreach.
An additional $7.8 million included in California’s Budget Act of 2021 will sustain the Collaborative for another year and enable it to expand. Federal officials have also taken note of the Collaborative’s innovative approach to solving challenging social issues and are seeking an additional $5 million.
Programs such as BEF and Project Kinship recently reapplied for grants with the Collaborative to bolster the momentum they have achieved, and to keep helping students like Lesly, who need support during a time of crisis. They received additional funding and will continue to expand their program to help more students find their way.
Senator Newman was able to meet with students from Brea Olinda Unified School District and Project Kinship to hear about the program’s impact.
“I get to hear about a lot of services. We make laws and we also spend money, but it’s not often we get to see how the money is being spent,” said Sen. Newman. “I am actually very moved today. Thank you for educating me and giving me a chance to get insight on everything you are doing and the individual successes you are having.”
Students from different grades and schools spoke at the meeting, many of them sharing how Project Kinship helped them cope during tough times in their young lives.
“I took a wrong path and got in trouble with my mom, so my mom called the principle from Brea Olinda High School, and I got pulled into Project Kinship,” said Serena, 16. “I could see they all really wanted to help me. I was in denial about where I was, but they helped me academically and with my home life.”
Mia, 15, met Vanessa from Project Kinship when she was in Brea Junior High School, she was experiencing behavioral and academic challenges and found a new way to express herself.
“I was having problems with other people in school and academically, so they taught me how to pick myself up and find a new way to express myself,” said Mia. “I began to paint during snack and lunch time, and we would talk about ways I could focus… and how things can be different. It made me realize more things about my life.”
For Steve Kim, Executive Director & Co-Founder of Project Kinship, there success has a lot to do with the staff’s ability to connect to the students.
Much of the staff has experienced their own trauma and they were able to overcome it. This helps them relate to students who often feel alone.
“Our approach is not so much ‘what’s wrong with you, but what happened to you?” said Kim. “We all feel honored to be able to help them process their feelings … and for them to feel as if someone is walking with them on campus – they aren’t alone. I applaud Brea because they are allowing us to provide that support to their students.”
For Dominguez, who has been working with Project Kinship since junior high school, she is excited to graduate from high school this spring, to leave for college in the fall, and to have a future where law school is the ultimate goal.
It’s not something the little girl she was could have imagined.
“What they are doing here for the students is very cool and I appreciate everything they’ve done for me,” said Dominguez. “I’m very, very proud to be a part of Project Kinship, this is the one thing I will never regret doing and I am thankful they never gave up on me.”