Emilio Isazaga says he hopes education will get himself and his family “out of the struggle.”
The 17-year-old participates in an after-school program called Tech Connect in Orosi that teaches computer repair, tax preparation and community service.
For many, the class is a chance at a brighter future. Every high school senior in Tech Connect has gone to college – a great feat, especially considering that 62% of adults in Cutler-Orosi don’t have a high school diploma, compared to 32% throughout Tulare County, according to a 2013 survey.
Miguel Castañeda started Tech Connect in 2009, inspired by a similar program in San Francisco. Castañeda, who grew up in Delano, thought students in rural communities should have access to the same opportunities as those in more affluent areas.
“It’s hard out here,” he says of Cutler-Orosi, adding that many people work as farm laborers and there are lots of gangs.
There are regularly more than 100 high school students in the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District who apply for 30 slots in his yearlong Tech Connect class. Castañeda doesn’t choose participants based on grade point average. He looks, foremost, for students with a passion, and need, for learning.
Emilio is one of those young people.
“Honestly, miss,” Emilio says, “I’ve been through some things, you know? I’m trying to learn some things.”
Emilio’s mother was deported to Mexico. He lives with his grandmother and younger sister. He’s currently on probation, although he managed to graduate high school at age 16.
He loves Tech Connect. Castañeda has become a father figure.
Outside the classroom last week, we hear the scream of sirens in the distance.
“Right now, it’s helping me stay out of those sirens, right? It will help me build some character, help out my people, you know? I feel like it’s a good choice, to help out.”
Tech Connect students are required to do community service. They clean up graffiti around town, feed the homeless, teach adults how to use computers, and, starting again next month, will volunteer doing taxes for low-income residents on Saturdays at the Community Services Employment Training (CSET) office in Cutler. Each year, all of Castañeda’s students have become certified in tax preparation.
Castaneda also takes students on field trips to colleges, tutors those who need additional help with school and helps connect them with jobs in the community.
Adylene Saucedo, 15, says Castañeda is a great leader. “He will do whatever he can to help you out.”
Tech Connect is a CSET program that is also funded by the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District and the Central Valley Community Foundation, formerly known as the Fresno Regional Foundation. Castañeda is also a senior program specialist for CSET.
“He’s just really good at what he does,” says Elizabeth Gonzalez, a grant writer for the program, while watching Castañeda teach students about computer parts last week.
“This subject could be really boring, but as you can see, the kids are really engaged. … He’s just very giving, very giving.”
“Mr. Miguel, he’s really nice to us, you know? So I think that’s good for a teacher. He’s a role model.”
Emilio’s classmates share similar thoughts.
“My family is so unstable right now,” says Sara Rabadan, 17. “He doesn’t give up on people. He literally told us, a couple of times, he’s not going to give up – even if we put up the struggles. I think that’s nice ’cuz there are parents that give up on you, ya know.”
“He teaches us to help your community, help other people,” says Christian Salacup, 15, “and by doing that, now it gives us at least a little bit of a habit to help others.
“He said in one of our first meetings that he had a rough past, bad people around him, I guess, and even though he went through all of that, he was still able to find a way to help others and himself succeed.”
Emilio says he will likely attend College of the Sequoias, “hopefully for a good while” before transferring somewhere else “if they want me.” He’s still deciding what he’d like to study, but is sure the skills he’s learned through Tech Connect will help him.
“Hopefully I get to get out of my struggle too, ya know, and will learn a little something along the way. And do some good for a change, right?”
Tax preparation from Tech Connect
Tech Connect students are certified to do free tax preparation for low-income families from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays beginning in February at the CSET office located at 12691 Ave. 408, Cutler. More information is available by calling 559-528-1095.
Support Tech Connect
Donations can be made online for Tech Connect at cset.org. More information is available by contacting Miguel Castañeda at (559) 528-1095 or Miguel.Castaneda@cset.org.