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Climbing out of poverty

Bernice Bojorquez, a single mother of two, felt at ease with the life she was scraping together eight years ago.

Although she lacked job skills, she was earning $10.50 an hour during harvest season to sort watermelon and asparagus inside a Turlock packing plant.

When the rains came or the fields dried up, she went back on welfare and food stamps to cover the rest of her Section 8 rent and to buy groceries.

Bojorquez, who had just ended her marriage, wasn't ashamed or embarrassed about getting caught -- or surviving -- in the government safety net. With two growing kids, she had no other options.

The mother, son and daughter lived on 11 acres in Delhi inside a three-bedroom trailer. It was a quarter-mile from the Merced River, where the children learned to swim. It was a fine place to raise a family, especially compared with their last place, a duplex on Lansing Street in the Loughborough area.

One evening while they were watching television, Bojorquez's 9-year-old daughter, Angelina, announced that she wanted to be just like her mother.

Most parents would smile and feel honored.

"No, daughter," Bojorquez snapped back, "you don't want to be like that."

That idolization shattered the mirror that reflected Bojorquez' life. She had always felt adequate as a parent, but never thought her children should follow her path. They were supposed to climb past her rung on the economic ladder, not reach for it and be satisfied to get there.

She resolved to set a better example for her daughter and son. No more financial aid. No more food stamps. No more seasonal employment.

Bojorquez drew on local resources to break her cycle of poverty that began when she was a child and continued to turn after she became a mother. She's now trying to instill a strong drive and work ethic in her children to make sure their own culture of poverty ended the night Angelina shook the foundations of her world.

As a statistic, she represents one of the 120 Merced County residents each month who've gone from public aid to gainful employment with the help of the government. Despite those successes, Merced County's poverty continues to prosper, pulling more people down as simply living becomes more expensive.

"There is no excuse for anyone going hungry in this county," Human Services Agency director Ana Pagan said. "We feed half the world but we can't feed our own neighbors?"

Her agency, along with dozens of private organizations, is partnering to launch Circles, a program that pairs poor families with people who can help them rise out of poverty. It can be generational, as in Bojorquez's case.

And it can be situational. Many residents are one medical emergency or one paycheck away from sinking beneath the poverty line, Pagan noted. Close to a fifth of Merced County's residents, about 50,000, fall beneath the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census' 2006 American Community Survey.

For the Circles campaign to succeed, Pagan warned, Merced must unite to eliminate poverty -- not expect someone else to fight it. Residents and businesses must realize the benefits of winning the battle and the costs of losing it.

Merced County alone doled out $41 million in food stamps in 2007-2008. Circles includes a no-tolerance policy for that, which inevitably means a change in mindset. "(Residents) have to think that kids that are wards of the state are the community's children," Pagan said. "They have to think of people in poverty as neighbors and extend their hand."

Already a chronic problem, it's been compounded by the rise and fall of Merced's housing market, which has led to fewer construction jobs and forced businesses to lay off employees or close entirely. Anecdotally, Pagan said HSA's front desk has seen more new faces.

The unemployment rate is at 12.1 percent -- highest in the Valley and double the national average. That doesn't count the working poor who still fall below the poverty line, which means earning less than $21,200 for a family of four; these families must rely on government help.

Breaking the cycle of poverty isn't done quickly or easily, but Bojorquez, as one single mother with a shove from her daughter, showed that it can be done. Her story also pinpoints the local resources that can extend a helping hand to the down-and-out.

Now 51, she no longer gets food stamps or welfare checks. Instead, she works 40 hours a week and plans to buy a car next tax season. It's a life she couldn't have imagined in 2000 when she worked summers at the packing house and spent winters on government aid.

"It was money and making ends meet, but it wasn't happiness," she recalled. "I didn't know there was more than that. I didn't know what 'more' was."

An odyssey through poverty

As Bojorquez puts it, she grew up young, dumb and free from supervision in a working-class San Jose neighborhood.

Her mother died from complications from a failed pregnancy with twins when Bojorquez was 6. Her father, an alcoholic, wasn't around much, so her grandparents raised her and her siblings. They leaned on food stamps to feed the extra mouths.

Uncles and aunts would come over and spend the weekend drinking, Bojorquez remembered. There wasn't any abuse, but there was plenty of neglect. She grew wild and independent, a streak that would lead to regrets.

During her freshman year of high school, she skipped class 23 times. She spent those afternoons drinking, smoking and playing cards. Once she went for a joyride inside a friend's car she later learned was stolen. "Run!" the driver shouted when a police car pulled them over. She was pregnant by semester's end. It forced her out of school and into a life that would only become rockier.

The father of her child was white, which created tension with her Mexican brother. After much infighting, Bojorquez's father brought the family together and she married him.

For the next 25 years, she dealt with her husband's cheating, prison sentences, verbal abuse and drug use. They had two more sons and a daughter. She was a full-time Kool-Aid Mom, nicknamed for the pitcher of it she'd keep on the counter.

She tried three times to complete her GED, becoming pregnant each time before she could finish. At 20, she started class and got pregnant with her second son, Matthew. A decade later, she tried again, then became pregnant with Angelina.

The third time, at 36, she kept attending Independence High School in San Jose, determined that she wouldn't be derailed again. She got her diploma in 1994 and gave birth to Don-el not long afterward.

By that time, her two oldest sons were in college, and their success was a source of envy that fueled her own hopes to earn her diploma. "I wanted to show them that I could do it too," she explained.

From San Jose to a new life in Merced

In 1996, fed up with her husband, she finally decided to take her youngest children and leave San Jose. A fresh start in Merced, she thought. She took back her maiden name, Bojorquez, with the divorce. "I gave him what he wanted," she said. "I gave him freedom."

It was easily the hardest decision in her life. As a single mother with no job history, she knew forging a life independent from her husband in a new city wouldn't be easy. At least she could depend on child support.

She moved into a $700-a-month apartment on Lansing Street and quickly realized it wasn't the place to raise two young kids. Drugs and violence were part of the landscape.

Six months later, she rented the Delhi trailer for $600 a month. Her husband lost his job as a home painter in 1999, and in the fall she received her last child-support check. She had no option but to head to Wardrobe Avenue and sign up for aid.

She landed a seasonal job in 2000 at the warehouse, sorting melons and asparagus in three-month shifts. She started at $9 an hour the first year, then earned $10.50 the next and topped out the final year at $11.23. This was when minimum wage was $6.25. "It was good money back then," she recalled.

Bojorquez went back on government aid when her warehouse job ended. It was a cycle she got used to and a safety net she could count on.

That lasted until the Saul of Tarsus moment when her daughter announced she wished to be like her mom -- sorting fruit and vegetables. Like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, Mom turned her life around.

Bojorquez stopped viewing her work-training classes at the adult school as a waste of time. They were the only shot she had at making a better life for her kids.

She credits her Cal-Works counselor with motivating her. "She was the best thing that ever happened to me," Bojorquez said. "She really pressured me."

Though unfamiliar with computers, she still managed to learn how to use Microsoft Office programs. She also learned business etiquette and took a math refresher course.

The lessons landed her a job in 2001 working for Continental Labor, a temporary worker placement company, but it only lasted a few months. The company shut down, and she was back on aid, receiving $689 a month, $322 in food stamps and paying $169 for rent.

As part of the assistance, she was required to perform community service. She helped at HSA and also with C.O.T.S. Homeless Day Center, run by the Merced County Community Action Agency.

Stopping 'the pity party'

As she applied for jobs, she quickly realized the Catch-22 known to just about any Mercedian teenager seeking a paycheck: You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience.

While she was volunteering at the shelter, an intake worker position with the action agency opened up. Her computer skills qualified her, and she was hired in 2004. As an intake worker, she figured out if residents qualified for assistance with their energy bills.

Since then, she's been promoted to office technician, in charge of purchase orders and maintaining records.

For two years, Bojorquez has been living without any government aid. She can buy her children new shoes when she wants -- a financial luxury she's never enjoyed before.

She hopes to be able to afford a new car come tax season. Now, a co-worker drives her to work, and her 19-year-old daughter runs errands during the day.

Looking back at her welfare-to-work odyssey, she believes that overcoming poverty often requires an attitude change. "People just need to get off the pity party," she said. "They need to say, 'I can do it,' and get motivated."

She's comfortable with her life and remains thankful that she has a job, especially in a weak economy. Don-el, her 14-year-old son, just began his freshman year of high school. He's not sure what he wants to do when he grows up.

Angelina, Bojorquez' daughter, has a 1-year-old daughter, Emma, and started classes at the adult school. The 19-year-old plans to become a medical assistant.

Bojorquez concedes that, despite having a full-time job, the fear still hovers inside her that her children will be pulled into poverty.

"It's always a worry," she confessed. "But I have the faith they could bring themselves out of it like Mom did."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or