For some families an extra $30 here or $20 there is hard to come by, so one Merced County Office of Education staffer works year-round to try to make sure no child is turned away from extracurricular activities because of money.
Lee Lor, 32, is an administrative assistant in the county office but she heads up the Merced County Education Foundation, which helps families who can’t afford the activities and works to keep the cost down for a few special projects.
The idea is to get young people involved in activities that translate into successful skills in the classroom. “We strive to provide programs that would be affordable and really high-quality for our students,” she said.
The foundation has a number of focuses: Camp Green Meadows, foster youth, agriculture education, visual and performing arts, and education related to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
About 100 foster youth have gone to Camp Green Meadows in the past three years thanks to the foundation, and thousands of students participate in the educational programs every year.
When the foundation started in 2011, county schools had cut back on many programs because they were still feeling the effects of reduced funding, according to Superintendent Steve Gomes.
But many of the programs help build valuable skills, Gomes said.
“Theater arts especially have a lot of crossover skills into other things – building confidence, being able to speak in front of others,” he said, adding that its helps develop a sense of responsibility and collaboration.
Gomes said Lor is “passionate” about the programs offered to young people. He said he also leans on her for her knowledge of the Hmong population in the region.
The second of 14 siblings, Lor said it was rare for her to be able to afford activities when growing up on public assistance. Her parents were immigrants from Laos who came to the country, like many Hmong did, as war refugees after the United States left Vietnam and communists took over.
“I’m the first generation born here, so there were many struggles learning the school system,” she said.
Her parents did not speak English, so she had to figure out the system on her own, she said. That goes double for when she went to college.
She said there were some in the community that frowned upon her plans to go to college, because she’s a woman. But she saw how hard her parents worked and still needed public assistance. “I wanted that American dream, and I knew that education was the only way out,” she said.
Giving others the chance to succeed in school is a big part of the foundation.
She said she believes the science, technology, engineering and math education programs are particularly important, because students are living in the shadow of UC Merced, a research university.
Kathleen Stefani, a longtime Merced resident with experience in fundraising, said Lor is hardworking and diligent. Lor also wants to make Merced a better place.
“She has a real, heartfelt desire to make sure good things happen in this community,” she said. “She’s willing to put in the extra hours to make those things happen.”
The foundation has helped produce some success stories and provide unique opportunities.
Maria de Lourdes Linan of Merced praised the performing arts supported by the foundation. She said her 11-year-old son, Augustine Jr., has taken part during the past two summers.
“He didn’t have to be there until 9 o’clock, but he chose to be there every day at 8:30, because of the atmosphere,” she said. “It was welcoming for him.”
She said it gave him something to do other than play video games all summer, and it has helped build his confidence.
An extra benefit, she said, is her son is able to meet students from other parts of the county. Because high school students are involved, he’s also able to meet and pick the brains of older students.
“He gets to hang out with high school kids, and ask high school kids about high school things,” she said.
Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Merced Matters” appears every Monday. In it we will tell the stories of Mercedians – ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and a lot in between. Contact Victor Patton at email@example.com or (209) 385-2431 with your ideas for “Merced Matters.”