For the past 42 years, a local job training provider has made it possible for hundreds, if not thousands, of job seekers to be gainfully employed in two of its programs, bookkeeping and administrative assistant.

These are but two of the numerous programs provided by the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation known as MAOF in Bakersfield. Making it even better is that the programs are free and open to just about anyone. While some may think the name of this agency implies it is for Hispanics only, that's certainly not the case.

A brief history here. The nonprofit was begun in 1963 in Los Angeles by the late Dionicio Morales to provide job training to those who need it most. Morales succeeded in landing a contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to provide job training for Los Angeles area residents. Today MAOF is in six California counties including Kern (since 1978) and also in New Mexico and Nevada. To qualify for services, there are income guidelines to be met regardless of race or ethnicity.

But the last few years have been hard. Classes that once were full have seen a dramatic drop in attendance. The COVID pandemic has only made things worse. Since funding from the state is directly tied to the number of students in a class, funding for the bookkeeping and administrative assistant programs is now in jeopardy.

Unless those numbers increase, MAOF stands to lose a good chunk of funds to keep the programs going. This was the discussion held two weeks ago at the Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting. It's the supes who have the last word on how state and federal job training monies are distributed to local job training providers, based on recommendations from Employers Training Resource Workforce Development Board.

Assistant Kern County Administrative Officer Teresa Hitchcock gave a presentation showing a low number of trainees enrolled in MAOF's bookkeeping and administrative assistant programs. For the bookkeeping program, the county paid MAOF around $25,000 per participant last year. For the administrative assistant program, MAOF received around $27,777 per participant, said Hitchcock.

"We don't feel like it's advisable for us to continue to fund a program that has such limited participation and has such a disparative cost per participant," said Alissa Reed, chair of the Workforce Development Board, which makes funding recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

Other public speakers came to MAOF's defense, pointing out the successful history it's had in Kern County since 1978.

"We must take a look at the total picture and not turn our backs on those most in need," said former ETR director and ex-Fifth District Supervisor Pete Parra. Educator Olivia Garcia weighed in, saying, "We're talking about people in poverty and people struggling."

A case in point is Vicente Benavidez. Arriving in the U.S. at age 10 from El Salvador, he had never gone to school and had only known work. Completing BHS, he enrolled in the medical assistant program at MAOF in 2002. That only whetted his appetite for more knowledge and then he completed Bakersfield College while working full time and eventually went on to Stanford University, where he earned a diploma as a physician's assistant. Today he is a partner at Polyclinic Medical Center in Bakersfield.

"It all started when I enrolled in the program at MAOF," Benavidez said in a phone interview. "It opened doors for me."

It would hurt to have any program under MAOF cut, he said.

So here's what the supervisors decided to do. Instead of funding the MAOF programs for a full year, the county will fund only the bookkeeping program for six months, to Dec. 31. But there must be 20 people at a minimum enrolled in the program. If that figure is not met, the contract stops Dec. 31. If enrollment is met, then the county will extend the funding for another six months.

According to Hitchcock, the administrative assistant program is no longer recognized by the state as leading to an industry recognized credential and therefore is not eligible for funding under the current guidelines.

But MAOF and the county are currently working on fixing that.

With some marketing help from ETR, MAOF director Magda Menendez is confident the bookkeeping program will survive, regardless of COVID.

"We've been doing this for a long time," said Menendez. "We've got to make it work."

To get more information about all of MAOF programs, the number to call is 661-336-6821.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own.

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