If you ever wanted to see how one little program can turn a life around, then visit the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation in Bakersfield.

Although the organization's name would give the assumption that the nonprofit only serves Hispanics, MAOF aims to provide job training and skills, educational services, childcare, and other social services to eligible individuals who meet certain income guidelines and dream of climbing out of poverty or other dire circumstance to build better lives.

The nonprofit began out of Los Angeles 50 years ago by the late Dionicio Morales who sought to provide job training to those who needed it the most. As the nonprofit struggled to find its footing, Morales -- probably out of desperation -- made a call to the U.S. President's Office, recalls Martin Castro, MAOF president and CEO. Unfortunately, Morales wasn't able to speak to then-President John F. Kennedy. But that call did result in a meeting and an eventual sit-down with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson -- and later a contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to provide job training for eligible Los Angeles area residents.

The rest is history so to speak. But in a positive, life-changing kind of way.

Since then, MAOF has expanded its types of services and established offices in six California counties, such as Kern, and western states, including New Mexico and Nevada.

Castro, who hails from Bakersfield and Mettler, drove from Los Angeles with his family to share the story during the annual Aztec Awards award ceremony and dinner at the Bakersfield Marriott at the Convention Center downtown Friday.

At the event, two organizations -- the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce for its Leadership Bakersfield program and Proyecto de Compasion (the Compassion Project) for its farmworker and immigrant work -- received the Aztec Community Service Award. Both organization leaders, Cynthia Pollard and Laura Arredondo, were on hand to accept the recognitions.

"Thank you for recognizing what we love to do: helping others achieve their dreams," Arredondo said.

Additionally, former participants of the MAOF program in Bakersfield were given the Super Estrella (star) award.

"Tonight's Estrella Award winners are beneficiaries of what (Morales) started 50 years ago," said Castro, after sharing the Morales story.

The awardees were: Carolina Lopez, recreation assistant at the Crestwood Behavioral Health facility; Vicente Fernandez, a physician assistant at the Polyclinic Medical Center; Harvey Clowers, a special project coordinator at the Independent Living Center; and Luis Vargas, a case manager at San Joaquin Community Hospital.

Lopez who completed a MAOF job-training program shared her story of overcoming health ailments. She nearly lost sight in the right eye and was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. As she battled her health problems, including surgery and radiation treatment, she managed to complete her education and earn a bachelor's degree from Cal State Bakersfield and maintain her job at Crestwood.

"If it wasn't for ... MAOF, me and my children wouldn't be here today," said Lopez, as she proudly mentioned that one daughter recently earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and another just graduated from high school.

She said the program taught her to turn adversity into a source of strength instead of letting it defeat her.

Clowers echoed her statements.

As a teenager, Clowers suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down. A wheelchair provided him a way to move around, but his health challenge would be toppled by a drug and alcohol problem, the result of hanging out with the wrong the friends as a teen and young adult.

Tired of the life he was leading, Clowers quit his drug and alcohol habit and in 1993, enrolled in a bookkeeping program through MAOF. That job-training program eventually led to him his current job at the Independent Living Center.

"MAOF opened doors and avenues" that he thought would never be open to him, said Clowers, who is now married and happy with his job at the center. "I believe in helping people with disabilities to find independence because independence is the key to everything."

Vargas was not in attendance to accept his award. However, Vicente Benavidez drew much praise from the attendees, as he shared his story of a Salvadoran immigrant and farmworker kid who grew up helping his parents in the fields and later found himself as a dishwasher with a dream for something much bigger.

With help from the Career Services Center, Benavidez enrolled in the MAOF medical assistant program. That program led him to LVN courses and a relentless persistence to attend the Stanford University School of Medicine's physician assistant program. In fact, he applied three times before they accepted him. (Apparently, he told the admissions officer that his plan was to apply every year until he got in). A year ago, he reached another milestone by passing the national board exams as a physician assistant, certified to practice anywhere in the U.S.

He chose a small clinic in east Bakersfield, the Polyclinic Medical Center, which serves the poor, low income and immigrants.

Benavidez said he chose to return to where he came from and help others whose stories he knew too well. "I was one of them," he said.

"The medical assistant program at MAOF... it made me a better person," he said. "It gave me a desire to pursue a higher education. I highly recommend this program."

He also thanked local businessman Jose Arredondo for sponsoring him with a scholarship while he attended Stanford's medicine program. And like other recipients, he gave much praise to Magda Menendez, the administrator of MAOF in Bakersfield. She challenged local businesses to consider hiring MAOF participants who may not meet all the job requirements, such as so many years of job experience, but they all have a strong desire to achieve their dreams.

"There are a lot of estrellas out there," Menendez said.

The evening finished with a mariachi performance by Oro y Plata. However, seven-year-old Brian Anaya of Bakersfield stole the crowd. His parents say Brian entered in a talent show about six months ago, and a friend of the family who plays in a mariachi group asked if he could perform with them. Brian told me he loves singing English and Spanish songs, and while he may be too young to figure out what he will do when he grows up, he is doing a fine job of singing and winning hearts. For many, he is already achieving a little dream.

Olivia Garcia is editor of Bakersfield Life and BWell magazines and a columnist of The Bakersfield Californian. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Bakersfield Californian. Send her tips atogarcia@bakersfield.com

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