Fresno business leader Pete Weber and the Fresno Bridge Academy are one of five recipients of the 2016 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards, an honor that comes with a $200,000 grant to continue their work in the community.
The Bridge Academy, founded by Weber in 2010, works with low-income families to help them get off of public assistance and into jobs.
“Think of the Bridge Academy as a pathway, or a bridge, that enables families to transition from dependence on public assistance to self-reliance,” Weber said.
It is an 18-month, employment-training program that also provides support services for families – including computer-literacy classes, résumé assistance, parenting classes and tutoring for children – through the non-profit Reading and Beyond, its umbrella agency.
The organization was started after Weber saw a severe need for the service in the central San Joaquin Valley.
“Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty, the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars, created 92 federal poverty programs, and yet we have made very little headway in reducing poverty,” Weber said.
Many of California’s impoverished residents reside in the inland part of state, Weber said, “and Fresno, unfortunately, is the epicenter of California poverty. And Fresno Bridge Academy decided to do something about that issue because, if we can fix poverty in Fresno, we can fix it anywhere.”
The academy attempts to be holistic in its approach to helping people attain self-reliance.
“We enroll the entire family; it’s not just a program to train the primary wage earner,” Weber said. “We find people who live in poverty have multiple issues that they have to contend with; it’s tough being in poverty.”
The organization will even work to help those enrolled develop their English skills or budgeting skills. “We work on whatever the family needs; they are individualized family plans,” Weber said.
Fresno, unfortunately, is the epicenter of California poverty. And Fresno Bridge Academy decided do something about that issue because, if we can fix poverty in Fresno, we can fix it anywhere.
Pete Weber, Fresno Bridge Academy founder
To qualify, clients must be over 18 years old, legally able to work in the U.S. and receiving food-stamp assistance through the CalFresh program.
From laid-off to new job
Fresno resident Abrahama Tomelloso remains grateful for the case management provided by the academy, which she signed up for in 2014 after being laid off. To help Tomellosoregain independence, the organization helped her make a résumé and conducted mock interviews to prepare her in advance of job interviews.
“They helped out in other ways that I didn’t expect,” Tomelloso said. “I have car issues, and the program was helping me with that as that was my way of going to job interviews.”
Since March 2015, Tomelloso has been employed at Clinica Sierra Vista as a nutrition assistant, a job she said she wouldn’t have applied for were it not for motivation from the Fresno Bridge Academy.
The Bridge Academy is contracted by Fresno County’s Department of Social Services to provide services to its clients. It has historically focused its efforts in three low-income, high-need areas, including Fresno’s southeast area and Lowell neighborhood and the city of Coalinga.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a three-year, $12.2 million grant to expand Bridge Academy to sites in Kerman and Reedley, as well as Fresno’s Pinedale and El Dorado Park neighborhoods, as well as central and west Fresno. Those sites have been staffed and operational as of January, Weber said.
Foundation’s focus on poverty
The James Irvine Foundation, established in 1937, has provided more than $1.5 billion in grants to non-profit organizations through its youth, arts and democracy programs. The foundation recently announced its intention to focus more of its grant support in the areas of economic and political opportunities for working families and young adults who are struggling with poverty.
The foundation launched its Leadership Awards in 2006, which honors around four to six Californians each year, said Amy Dominguez-Arms, the James Irvine Foundation’s vice president for programs.
“The idea behind the awards program is to help to advance effective and innovative approaches that Californians are leading to address significant state issues,” Dominguez-Arms said. “The thinking behind it is that, throughout the state, there are people who are successfully addressing some of the core challenges, and we want to help uplift those efforts.”
The award criteria include the significance and effectiveness of the leader’s work, innovation or departure from typical practices, inclusiveness among people with differing backgrounds, leadership in sharing their project model across their field of interest and advocacy with policymakers.
Out of 60 recipients recognized with leadership awards since the program was launched, Weber is only the third from the central San Joaquin Valley. The first was Luis Santana, executive director of Reading and Beyond, in 2009. The second was Dr. Katherine Flores, director of UC San Francisco Fresno Latino Center for Medical Education and Research, in 2010.
Besides Weber, the other 2016 honorees are Lenore Anderson of Californians for Safety and Justice in Oakland, Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin of the Sierra Fund in Nevada City, Dr. Dean Schillinger of San Francisco General Hospital/UC San Francisco Center for Vulnerable Populations and Kate Sofis and Todd Rufo, SFMade/San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
The award recipients will be honored at 9 a.m. Thursday at the state Capitol during a floor session of the state Senate. The awards will be formally presented at noon during a luncheon at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel.
James Irvine Foundation
Since 1937, the James Irvine Foundation has been involved in philanthropy. It has provided more than $1.5 billion in grants to more than 3,600 non-profit organizations across the state. Its guiding principle: to expand opportunity for Californians.