By Marissa Willman
For more than 10 years, Olive Crest has worked to change the lives of at-risk youths in the Coachella Valley by preventing child abuse and treating and educating at-risk youth.
Olive Crest operates throughout the West Coast and began operations in the desert in 2000. In addition to providing safe homes and families for children in crisis, the organization recently opened Olive Crest Academy, a tuition-free public charter high school in Coachella that prepares students and their families for college.
The school employs a rigorous program designed to get students into college courses as early as their junior year. Located in Coachella, Principal David Chamberlain said the academy strives to offer opportunities to an underserved population. He added that the college completion rate in Coachella is less than five percent, highlighting the community’s need for such an institution. The academy is not, however, exclusive to Coachella residents.
“We’re open to any high school student in the Coachella Valley,” Chamberlain said. “They can come to a high school where they can either begin college courses during their junior or senior year or be prepared to start straight away after graduation.”
Students at the academy take four 90-minute classes a day, with courses alternating each day to mimic a college schedule. Students learn how to attend college and are shown everything from how to buy their textbooks to how to crash a full course. The staff drives students to their classes at College of the Desert and pays for their books to help ease the financial burden of a college education.
“We really work hard on getting our students out of the valley to see these different opportunities and experiences,” said Lisa Hernandez, Director of Counseling at Olive Crest Academy.
Fatima Ramirez, a student at the academy, has not only completed courses at College of the Desert but will experience college life firsthand this summer. Ramirez started attending Olive Crest Academy as a sophomore when the school opened. Now a junior, Ramirez has already completed two college courses and will attend an intensive program at UC San Diego this summer. Ramirez was one of just over 100 students across the state that were chosen for UCSD’s COSMOS program, a four-week residential program in math and science for outstanding high school students.
“I thought COSMOS was something really interesting,” Ramirez said. “It’s going to be an experience in actually leaving for college.”
Hernandez, her counselor, was ecstatic about Ramirez’s selection into the competitive program.
“I think her being chosen for COSMOS shows her dedication to her schoolwork and her drive,” said Lisa Hernandez, Director of Counseling at Olive Crest Academy.
But Ramirez credited her teachers and counselors at Olive Crest Academy for her success.
“They really care about students and definitely try to help us out,” Ramirez said. “They do a really good job preparing me for college classes.”
Olive Crest Academy is just one way its parent organization, Olive Crest, works to help at-risk youth become empowered, healthy and educated adults. Olive Crest is also dedicated to providing a safe environment to at-risk youth and works to break the cycle of child abuse.
In recent years, Pam Lee, Executive Director of Olive Crest Inland Empire, noticed less children were being removed from crisis situations due to the economic downturn.
“The standards [for removing children from their homes] have changed a little bit,” Lee said, “and so [law enforcement is] not removing as many kids from the homes. From our perspective, fewer kids are being protected.”
To protect these children, Olive Crest came up with a Safe Families program that allows families in crisis to voluntarily and temporarily place their children in a safe and stable home.
“It tends to be for pretty significant things,” Lee said. “Whatever it is, [the parents] know they can’t care for the kids.”
Placements range anywhere from three days to one year and relationships with the biological families are encouraged throughout the placement. Lee said Olive Crest sees a variety of situations that bring children to their homes, but there is a common denominator.
“One similarity with most of the families involved is that they don’t have a safety net,” Lee said. “They’re very isolated socially and that becomes a problem when Mom and Dad are in crisis.”
Families whose children were removed by the Department of Public and Social Services and later returned are sometimes referred to Olive Crest’s Wraparound program, which works to help the family create a stable and healthy environment once the family is reunited. Through the Wraparound program, families are provided with a team of professionals who work as parent partners. Together, the family learns parenting skills such as conflict resolution or strategies for quality time and life skills such as how to find a job or housing.
Hernandez previously worked as a therapist for Wraparound and believes the program is crucial for breaking the crisis cycle.
“A child going back and forth between the system is just going to create another parent who is going to eventually have the same kind of interaction with their kids,” Hernandez said. “Wraparound tries to stop that cycle. Wraparound literally comes in and wraps its arms around the family to preserve the family as a whole.”
Olive Crest also has a Family Resource Center in Coachella that works with both Wraparound families and the public to provide a host of educational sessions and support groups.
Olive Crest is looking for volunteers to open their homes to at-risk children, as well as volunteers who can donate their time or financially to the organization. For more information:
Olive Crest Academy
52780 Frederick St., Coachella
73-725 El Paseo, Ste. 23C, Palm Desert