The basics: Elaine Robles-McGraw, 57, is a community organizer devoted to the Jane Addams neighborhood near Fresno Chaffee Zoo. She was born in Hanford but has lived in Fresno since she was 3. Her two sons, their children and her mother also live in Fresno.
What she does: For the past decade, Robles-McGraw has brought Christmas cheer to the Jane Addams community where she grew up. This year, she and friend Richard Burrell, who operates the nonprofit Live Again Fresno, brought a Christmas tree so children who live in the Sands Motel, west of Highway 99, can decorate it. The goal was to give the kids a Christmas-at-home experience, even if its a motel Robles-McGraw thinks should have been condemned years ago.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars 5057 Post – she’s a lifetime member – has helped Robles-McGraw raise money to provide a Christmas in this neighborhood, one of the lowest-income communities in Fresno. This Christmas, the children will enjoy a party. Santa Claus will make an appearance to distribute gifts gathered by volunteers, who include all four of Robles-McGraw’s siblings.
Why she does it: Robles-McGraw began to realize about 15 years ago she needed to help her community. She began to come to a local McDonald’s every Tuesday and Thursday and sit with a bag of cheeseburgers, along with a laptop, coloring books and crayons. Mothers with their children soon began to come to her. Robles-McGraw helped them apply for disability and Social Security benefits or assist them with tenant issues. In the meantime, the kids ate the cheeseburgers and colored. Later, she spent Saturdays for working with local groups to feed the homeless and families who lived in area motels.
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Turning point: When Robles-McGraw was earning a master’s degree in community and economic development at Southern New Hampshire University’s satellite campus in Los Angeles, her thesis was to create a mock community development corporation – essentially a plan that would “change how the neighborhood looks in the future.” She now had the tools that could help her in her goal to “change the footprint” of the Jane Addams community.
Details, details: Before she completed graduate school, Robles-McGraw landed a job at Fresno City Hall, working as manager of the downtown and community revitalization team. Community development had always been her passion. The joy she spreads during the holidays are only a part of her larger goal of improving people’s living conditions, she said. Robles-McGraw began helping develop neighborhoods like Lowell, Jefferson, Yokomi, Kirk and El Dorado Park. Eventually she began actively working on the Jane Addams community, and she’s continuing that work, though she retired from her city job two years ago.
What others say: It’s clear to those who work with her how much value Robles-McGraw places in seeing her neighborhood improve and push back against poverty. Burrell, who has worked alongside her for about five years, said there is no doubt Robles-McGraw believes in the youth who call the Jane Addams community home. “There’s a genuine sense of family (and) a very real sense of community to anything that (Robles-McGraw) puts her hands on,” Burrell said.
How you can help: As the city prepares to pick up the work Robles-McGraw has done to establish the community development corporation board for the Jane Addams neighborhood, she said it is up to the community to join together and raise their voice about their needs. “Nobody knows what a community needs more than the people who live there,” she said.