Grant called 'a real shot in the arm' for career assistance

A Washington, D.C.-based educational think tank has selected Del Norte County among 20 other communities nationwide to receive grant money dedicated to helping young adults continue their education or establish a career.

The Aspen Institute chose the Wild Rivers Community Foundation and the Building Healthy Communities Initiative to receive an Opportunity Youth Project Award. The award will help local government agencies, educational institutions and non-profit organizations work together to better serve youth and young adults ages 16 to 24, said Geneva Wiki, the foundation's executive director.

"We received the award because of our good work with the Building Healthy Communities Initiative and the Del Norte Engaged Learning Model," Wiki said. "(The Aspen Institute) is testing the idea about collective impact. It's this idea that there are complicated social problems that require a new level of collaboration between agencies or organizations that may not have worked together collaboratively in the past."

The foundation's partners are Del Norte County Unified School District, College of the Redwoods, the county's Department of Health and Human Services and Rural Human Services, Wiki said.

The Aspen Institute also awarded Opportunity Youth Fund awards to organizations in Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego. Del Norte is the only rural community in California to be recognized.

The Aspen Institute will award Opportunity Youth Fund grants of up to $500,000 to individual recipients, and a total of $6 million. The Wild Rivers Community Foundation applied for a $100,000 planning grant, but Wiki said it's unclear at this point how much grant money Del Norte will receive.

The money will be used to figure out what young people could be served by current resources, who isn't being served and what other resources are needed, Wiki said.

"The anticipation is to really get local experts in the room to do some hard strategic thinking together and ready ourselves to participate in what (the Aspen Institute) calls the implementation phase," she said, adding that experts include Gary Blatnick, director of the county's Department of Health and Human Resources, First 5 Del Norte Executive Director Patricia Vernelson, Rural Human Services, the Del Norte Child Care Council, Del Norte County Unified School District and CR. "(These) institutional leaders are doing really good work, but this is about coming together to say how can we work even better together."

The Aspen Institute defines "Opportunity Youth" as people ages 16-24 who aren't working and aren't in school. According to RHS Workforce Development Director Tim Hoone, 25 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds nationwide fall into the Opportunity Youth category.

"I don't know if we have accurate data locally, but I can only assume we're similar to the national percentage," he said. "The whole idea of this initiative is we need these young people. They're our future mechanics and carpenters and nurses. We need all these trained workers."

RHS operates a workforce development center that helps businesses find employees and residents get new and better jobs. The organization also operates a small youth program and is involved in Building Healthy Communities' youth media program, Hoone said.

Hoone predicts that the Aspen Institute's recognition will change the way Del Norte County support organizations work together. Unlike Los Angeles and other urban areas, resources are limited when it comes to workforce training for young adults in Del Norte and other rural areas, Hoone said.

"This is a real shot in the arm. (They're saying) hey, you're doing some good things," he said. "In Del Norte County, we're kind of a leader in finding rural solutions, so that's what will be important in moving forward with this."

In addition to providing the local community with funds to figure out what other resources are needed to help young adults, the Aspen Institute will push Del Norte into the "national spotlight," Blatnick told county supervisors Tuesday. The Aspen Institute's partners include Goldman Sachs, Ernest Young and Ariana Huffington, Blatnick said.

"We will be developing partnerships at a level we've never seen before," Blatnick said. "And we'll be held out as a model for other communities to come and see the good work we've been doing."

Building Healthy Communities is a 10-year initiative of the California Endowment, which also provides funding for the Aspen Institute. Building Healthy Communities is working with Del Norte County and 13 other California communities to encourage healthier living.

The Wild Rivers Community Foundation is an affiliate of the Humboldt Area Foundation and is the hub organization for Building Healthy Communities. The foundation serves Del Norte and Curry County in Oregon.

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