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Search Results for: Family Justice Center

Nonprofit profile: Family Justice Center helps those dealing with domestic violence

MH site makes it more convenient for local victims

Published in the Sept. 30 – Oct. 13, 2015 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek


Photo by Marty Cheek
From left: Arturo Santillan (Step Forward Foundation), Blanca Tapia, (Silicon Valley Faces), Karen Schulz (Step Forward Foundation), Nathalie Lezama Ferro (Step Forward Foundation), and Stephen Lowney (Office of the District Attorney) assist victims of domestic violence at the Family Justice Center.

In 2013, 11 people were killed in Santa Clara County by a spouse or significant other, according to the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee. Last year, that number dropped to two, the fewest number in 20 years.

Because of the jeopardy to the quality of life, and life itself, from incidents of domestic violence, in April last year various nonprofit and government agencies set up the South County Family Justice Center program, with the pilot site at the nonprofit Community Solutions office in Morgan Hill. The center provides individuals and family members facing domestic violence with an easy-to-get-to place where they can get professional support. The project recently expanded to a similar site in Mountain View, and next month a third site will open in San Jose.

Lulu Lopez, manager for the Domestic Violence and Direct Service program at Community Solutions, sees the FJC as a success story in helping residents in Gilroy, San Martin, Morgan Hill and south San Jose get the help they need in dealing with a domestic violence crime. The site’s personnel estimate that about 90 percent of the victims are women and 10 percent are men.

“The idea was to have a one-stop shop where people come in rather than go all the way to (the courthouse in) San Jose. They can be here in South County and get all their services here,” Lopez said. “The word has gone out and we see people coming. With a line out the door — there’s a lot of need.”

The center is a partnership of various nonprofit and government service providers working in collaboration, said Lisa De Silva, chief development officer at Community Solutions. Morgan Hill Police Department Chief David Swing proposed the idea of the FJC to make it easier for victims to get help.

Funding for the center comes from grants from sources such as the U.S. Department of Justice as well as from the county.

The agencies involved with the FJC are the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, Community Solutions, the MHPD, Gilroy Police Department, Santa Clara County Sheriff, Santa Clara County Probation, Victim/Witness Assistance Program, and Step Forward Foundation.

Swing said the FJC has been a “tremendous success” based on the stories he heard from members of the community and law enforcement professionals.

“The common thread through all of its success is (MHPD) Detective Mindy Zen,” he said. “She is our dedicated domestic violence detective and does phenomenal work helping victims feel safe through her compassionate and reassuring demeanor.”

Providing support is a key component for helping the individuals and families who use the center, he said.

“Victims of crime, especially domestic violence, are in a vulnerable state and their need for support is exponentially greater than others,” he said. “The need for the center was obvious. Domestic violence, unfortunately, is not going away. As such, victims will always need a place to go where they can find safety and support. The Family Justice Center meets that on-going need for safety and support of survivors and their children.”

District Attorney Jeff Rosen wanted to start with the pilot FJC in South County and if it proved successful he envisioned opening a similar FJC in North County and eventually in San Jose to meet the needs of all the county’s domestic violence survivors, said Stephen Lowney, supervising deputy district attorney. The South County FJC proved to be successful with partners from various agencies working together to provide much needed services. Consequently, District Attorney Rosen was able to move forward with his plan to open FJC’s in North County and San Jose — both modeled after the South County FJC. The North County FJC has been open for about a year and the San Jose FJC just had its grand opening.

The location of the center at Community Solutions in Morgan Hill provides a secure facility away from the courthouse where potential encounters with abusers may intimidate victims and cause them to be reluctant to avail themselves of services, he said.

“The Family Justice Center model is a true community partnership that will put victims and their families first and bring professionals together to break the cycle of violence,” he said. “Victims will no longer have to arrange transportation from place to place around the county in order to receive necessary services.”

The FJC is located on Church Street one block from a bus stop on Monterey Road, making it easier for people to reach using public transportation. It has served more than 250 people, many who have made multiple visits.

“Violence begets violence whether it is on the streets or in the home. Children of abusers learn to respond to stress and conflict with violence not only in the home, but in the community at-large,” Lowney said. “Thus, the entire community benefits when the cycle of domestic violence is broken. The FJC seeks to break that cycle.”

Lopez described the procedure for protecting the victim’s privacy when visit the FJC for help. “They come in and first speak to someone who has confidentiality, so whatever they tell us stays with us unless they want us to share it,” she said. “So we’re able to really figure out what the needs are for this client, where she can go from us, because sometimes they may not want to talk to a police officer or with the district attorney’s office. They have issues that they really need to think through. So coming to someone who has confidentiality really makes a huge difference. And maybe in the end they will talk to the police or the DA.”

The concern of being deported is a real one for many victims who are not American citizens and in the U.S. without documentation, she said.
“There’s a fear,” she said. “People are surprised when we tell them that women — and men — are not comfortable going to the police because they fear they’re going to be detained. But from my experience here at Community Solutions, in 50 percent of our clients where immigration is an issue, the abuser… may have residence as a citizen of this country, and he’s using that against the victim, the survivor.”

The abuser uses the victim’s ignorance of the law to control the victim, De Silva said.

“If immigration is a concern, the batterer uses that as a tactic and says ‘Oh, I’ll call the police, you’re never going to see your kids again.’ Where in fact there are special protections, and special visas that victims of domestic violence are entitled to by virtue of their victimization,” she said.
The partnership of various agencies has proven the success of the FJC, she said.

“We have really close working relationships. It’s not to say there are not disagreements ever, and those are able to be worked out,” she said. “We’re constantly working with people who we know. We share the commitment that we want to provide the best services we can, and provide them locally, I think that’s also an important part of the commitment.”

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month, and Lopez said this occasion helps create greater public knowledge of the problem of this crime which can devastate the lives of men, women and children from all walks of life, including economic status, ethnicity and career backgrounds.

“I think there is a need to understand why these women are going through what they’re going through and to understand how we can make them whole and their children whole,” she said. “If we don’t help them, the cycle continues with their children. We need to put an end to it now and not tomorrow.”


Location: Community Solutions, 16264 Church St. Suite 103, Morgan Hill
Hours: 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. every Wednesday
Contact: (408) 779-2113

Fifth grade students see how justice system works in field trip to courthouse

San Martin Gwinn Environmental Science Academy students learned to appreciate the judicial process

Published in the November 9 – 22, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo by Marty Cheek  San Martin Gwinn Environmental Science Academy fifth graders learned about the judicial process on a visit to the South County Courthouse.

Photo by Marty Cheek
San Martin Gwinn Environmental Science Academy fifth graders learned about the judicial process on a visit to the South County Courthouse.

A school bus pulled up in front of the South County Courthouse in downtown Morgan Hill Oct. 26 and about 50 fifth-graders from San Martin Gwinn Environmental Science Academy filed out. The students soon passed through the security scanner and followed Deputy District Attorney Johnny Gogo into the nearby jury waiting room. The young people were his guests invited for a special tour to learn first-hand a little bit on how the judicial process works.

After a briefing on how to behave in the courtrooms, the students divided into two groups. One group went upstairs to watch a trial while the others followed Gogo to the Honorable Le Jacqueline Duong’s court room where they observed the Superior Court judge work with attorneys and staff in reviewing several cases. After the last case was finished for the morning, Duong invited the students to sit in the jury box, the public defenders’ table, the court reporter’s desk, and the bailiff’s desk.

Alondra Sanchez received the special privilege of sitting in the judge’s seat at the center of the action.

“I was kind of nervous but it was fun,” she said.

She said she felt respect for the judge after Duong told the students she and her family had moved to East San Jose in 1975 as refugees from Vietnam. She went through the public schools, eventually graduating from San Jose State University and later getting her law degree from U.C. Davis. The judge was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I thought that she had a pretty hard life and she did well in her school and career,” Sanchez said.

The judge asked the courtroom staff to introduce themselves to the students and explain their roles. Among them was the bailiff who was in charge of security and making sure everyone behaved themselves, the public defender who represented people and the court reporter who quietly typed proceedings.

“She has excellent listening skills, which she has to because she has to take down everything that is said in this courtroom,” Duong said of the reporter.

Photo by Marty Cheek  San Martin Gwinn student Alondra Sanchez sits in a judge's chair on a visit to the South County Courthouse.

Photo by Marty Cheek
San Martin Gwinn student Alondra Sanchez sits in a judge’s chair on a visit to the South County Courthouse.

The judge asked the students questions to see what their knowledge of the judicial system might be. One question stumped many of the students: How many judges are on the California Supreme Court? The students made various incorrect guesses — 20, 30, 15, 12, 25, 17, 10. At last, fifth-grader Ethan Lehrbau sitting in the jury box came up with the right answer — seven. He received a red Chinese New Year envelope with a brand-new dollar bill in it as his prize.

“I was going to say 10 but then another person said that. So I was called on and I didn’t know what to say so I just said seven,” he admitted his lucky guess.

The best part of the visit was sitting in the jury chairs because they were “swirly” and he could spin around a little.

Jacqueline Parker, another student, said she appreciated how important it was for people to behave in the courtroom and not talk loud or distract people doing their jobs.
“I think I learned how to respect the rules and what it is to be in a courthouse and how it actually works,” she said.

The courthouse field trip program started in San Jose 20 years ago but this was the first time a Morgan Hill school participated, Gogo said. The deputy district attorney visited the students at San Martin Gwinn several weeks before to talk with them about how the process of law works. The program will also bring Gilroy fifth-graders to the courthouse for the judicial-focused field trips.

“At this particular age is when they start to learn about our system of government, the three branches of government — judicial, executive and legislative. And the reason why we chose the fifth graders, is that they had some studies that indicated that this is a critical age for the students at 10 years old because they’re still open to learning and hearing the message and still open to, hopefully, making some good decisions,” he said.

From migrant family to superior court judge, Jose Franco returns to inspire

Judge chats with San Martin/Gwinn students on about education success

Published in the March 16- 29, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Staff Report


Photo by Marty Cheek
Jose Franco talks to San Martin/Gwinn students earlier this month.

When Jose Franco last walked on the campus of San Martin/Gwinn Elementary School, he was a fourth grader who grew up in a migrant family with parents who didn’t speak English. He returned at age 42 for the first time Wednesday March 2, a judge on the Superior Court of Santa Clara County.

With microphone in hand, Judge Franco spoke at an assembly with many of the students of his former school, which is now called San Martin/Gwinn Environmental Science Academy. The day was Dr. Seuss’s birthday and the third annual Read Across America Day, so Franco discussed how learning to read played an important role in his law career.

“People sometimes may tell you different things, or you may feel different things, or you may hear different things,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you can do it, you can do whatever you want.”

Jose-Franco-(2)-webFranco’s style was a light banter with the students: “How many of you are going to graduate from fifth grade? I should see everyone’s hands,” he said.

“I’m going to graduate from eighth grade!” a boy shouted out.

“Not just eighth grade!” Franco shot back. “You’re going to graduate from high school and you’re going to graduate from college.”

Another boy said he wants to go to Harvard.

“I like that,” Franco said with a beaming smile. “You know where Harvard is? It’s on the other side of the country in Boston. I went to school in Boston because I wanted to see something different. And guess what let me go to Boston College. Reading. The more you read, the more places you go because that reading helps you do well in school.”

Jose-Franco-(3)-webFranco was born in Gilroy. The family lived in San Martin but later moved to Gilroy where he continued his education in the fifth grade, graduating from Gilroy High School in 1991. His brother, sister and parents still live in the community and Franco lives in San Jose. After high school, Franco received a bachelor’s degree from Boston College and a juris doctor degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law. He served as a deputy public defender at the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office from 2000 to 2015. He supervised the Juvenile Justice Unit beginning in 2011. He also put in time as an adjunct lecturer at the San Jose State University Department of Justice Studies from 2007 to 2012. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him a superior judge Nov. 17, 2015, to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of James P. Kleinberg.

Franco gave advice to the students during his hour visiting his former school. There are three parts to being successful and happy. The first is the money, the second is that you enjoy what you do. “And then the third most important thing is the people you work with because they have similar interests to you and that helps you grow just like reading does,” he said.

At the end of the talk, Principal Claudia Olaciregui thanked Franco and told the students, “He came to this school and look at how much good he’s doing for the community now. He’s working as a judge for Santa Clara County. I want you to think about that and the great message he gave about reading and making sure we go to college and graduate.”

Franco’s second-grade teacher, Lourdes Robledo, felt a pride that the little boy she had taught and encouraged so many years ago was able to come back a well-educated judge and share his success advice with the students. Out of 545 students at San Martin/Gwinn, about 100 are from migrant families.

“I get so emotional that what we say to them stays in their heads,” she said. “I remember telling him, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ He was a migrant child who was struggling with language along the way, and here he is, look at him, he’s a judge.”

Franco’s life and career can serve as a role model for other migrant children at the schools, she said.

“We’re always telling them, ‘Do the reading, do the homework, do the math,’ But to come from someone who can say he was a little kid here, for them to see him this way, I think it’s an inspiration.”

Second grader James Hayes and Nicholas Pfeil both agreed that Franco’s advice inspired them.

“It’s important to read so you can get good grades, and then you get to go to the best college like Harvard or Stanford,” Pfeil said.

The work to get good grades is vital to success in life, Hayes said. “It’s good to get a good job because it’s better for when you retire,” he said.

Franco recalled happy memories from his years at San Martin/Gwinn. On Saturdays, he and his siblings often were in the nearby fields picking strawberries, many times eating the fruit to the scolding of their mom.

“I drive to Gilroy to see my parents once a week, and driving by the (San Martin) airport brings back memories of my childhood,” he said of his visit. “My parents from the very beginning recognized the importance of school, and that’s why, even though they didn’t speak the language, they sat with us as we read.”

Community Voices with Don Gage: State closing family court in South County reduces services here

Published in the January 6 – 19, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Don Gage

Don Gage

Don Gage

Part of Santa Clara County’s plan years ago was to expand court services available to the South Valley communities of Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy to eliminate long drives or bus rides to the courthouses in San Jose.

In addition to courts, the county established satellite offices for the District Attorney, Public Defender, Probation Office in the Public Justice Center adjacent to the courthouse in Morgan Hill’s downtown district. Morgan Hill wanted to ensure that the courthouse would be part of its downtown revitalization efforts.

In 2003, the city of Morgan Hill purchased the property along Butterfield Boulevard and leased it to Santa Clara County for $1 a year. In addition, the city contributed $3.7 million toward construction of the courthouse.

A total of $7 million was pledged toward the efforts. The county and state of California contributed the balance of the construction funding.

During the construction the state passed “realignment” that consolidated Municipal and Superior Courts under the state’s jurisdiction. The Morgan Hill courthouse opened in 2009.

Despite the goal of locating courts accessible to South County residents, the state has cut back on the types of cases heard in South County. Traffic cases were assigned to a court in Santa Clara — an even more difficult drive or transit ride for residents of Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Martin.

Since Gilroy and Morgan Hill police officers often have to testify in traffic cases, the transfer to Santa Clara imposes real costs on the taxpayers of Gilroy. Now the state is closing the Family Court in South County, forcing all cases to be heard in San Jose. This continues the trend of reducing services to the residents of South County and imposing additional costs on local government.

These additional costs affect the quality of life for more than 100,000 of our local citizens.

The additional costs to Morgan Hill and Gilroy mean the money needed for necessary programs is not available.

Don Gage is the former mayor of Gilroy. He also served on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors. He wrote this guest column for Morgan Hill Life.

After three years, family, volunteers suspend search for Sierra

23-year-old man accused of killing Sierra faces the death penalty

Published in the March 18-31, 2015 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photos by Marty Cheek  Morgan Hill residents from left, Trudy Parks, and ‘kitchen ladies’ Vivian Goforth, Margaret Bianucci and Mary Malech have volunteered in the search for missing Sierra LaMar for three years. Organizers have suspended the search for the Sobrato High School student.

Photo by Marty Cheek
Morgan Hill residents from left, Trudy Parks, and ‘kitchen ladies’ Vivian Goforth, Margaret Bianucci and Mary Malech have volunteered in the search for missing Sierra LaMar for three years. Organizers have suspended the search for the Sobrato High School student.

Sierra LaMar never came home.

In many ways, the day three years ago this week when the outgoing 15-year-old Sobrato High School cheerleader went missing forever changed the community of Morgan Hill. The ongoing search for the sophomore since her disappearance March 16, 2012 has brought many closer together as friends and neighbors.

Now, unless new information turns up indicating where Sierra’s remains are, the search is being temporarily suspended by the LaMar family and organizers. Saturday March 14, the last official search day, was a tender time for the searchers who have built a bond of friendship and family over the three years they have wandered together through fields, searched creeks and roads, and probed the bottom of reservoirs and lakes trying to find closure by bringing Sierra home.

Among the individuals whose life has been changed in the quest to find Sierra is Mary Doering. The Campbell resident joined the search as soon as it started because her heart was touched by the story of a family who had lost their daughter. Over the span of time, the search for Sierra has created a family in a spiritual sense for her and others, she said.

“All kinds of people came together and we all have one goal and that is to find this young girl and create a support system for this family to get through this horrific trauma,” Doering said. “She’s had an effect on all of us, no matter where we came from. Sierra is a child of God, she’s somebody’s daughter, she’s somebody’s sister. She’s a human being and she’s important.”

Sierra-LaMar-Volunteers-webGetting involved with the Sierra LaMar search made Doering learn about crimes that can happen to children such as human trafficking. She joined the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking and the group’s efforts have rescued 46 under-aged girls from a life in the sex trade industry, she said.

“This has all come about because of Sierra and the awareness of what could have happened to her,” she said. “We need to bring awareness that kids can be safe and avoid being lured in.”

The search for Sierra has also brought together people of varied generations. Among them is a group of women known affectionately as “the kitchen ladies” by the group. During search days, these senior citizens help feed the team of volunteers breakfast before going out for a search and lunch when they return. Among them is Vivian Goforth of Morgan Hill who realized she needed to get involved in the search when she saw a line of vehicles at least a mile long had formed of people who wanted to help find Sierra.

“I lived down the road and I saw all these cars and so I stopped to see if I could help. They asked what I could do,” Goforth said.

Soon she found herself in the search center’s kitchen preparing pastries, fruit, sandwiches, and drinks with several other Morgan Hill women including Margaret Bianucci, Loretta Wilson, and Mary Malech. The kitchen ladies wear red and white Converse shoes in honor of Sierra who favored this type of footwear.

“We just showed up wanting to help and cooking was what we were capable of doing. We’re not going to be climbing over rocks,” Malech said with a grin.

Photo by Marty Cheek Volunteers adopted wearing  red and white Converse shoes in honor of Sierra who favored this type of footwear.

Photo by Marty Cheek
Volunteers adopted wearing red and white Converse shoes in honor of Sierra who favored this type of footwear.

The search for Sierra during the past 36 months since she disappeared on her way to her school bus stop has transformed people not just in Morgan Hill but throughout the Bay Area region and even beyond, said Roger Nelson, a Gilroy resident who has helped direct volunteer search efforts. The volunteers have been dedicated in the search, coming together on hot summer days and rainy, cold winter days, scanning woods, ravines and thickets searching for Sierra’s remains. Some searchers have come from as far away as San Diego and other states.

Although as many as 750 people initially turned out for the search when Sierra went missing, for the last year or so a core group of about two dozen dedicated volunteers continue the quest. The search team volunteers have gone on 1,130 separate searches in a 15-mile radius from the site in north Morgan Hill where Sierra was last seen. They’ve put in more than 50,000 combined hours.

“I would say it brings out the best in people,” Nelson said. “We’ve all come to know each other. And I know that people will stay in touch and friendships will continue from here after. Sierra brought us together.”

At first, the search took place three days a week, but over time it was reduced to only Saturday mornings. And the searchers have been following the court case of Morgan Hill resident Antolin Garcia Torres, 23, the man the Santa Clara County District Attorney believes abducted Sierra LaMar based on DNA material criminalists found on Sierra’s clothing and in Garcia Torres’s 1998 VW Jetta. Searchers who attend the court hearings describe Garcia Torres’s facial appearance as “angry” and “disturbing” as he glares at them and media cameras. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The judge has postponed setting a trial date. Garcia Torres is expected back in court April 8.

Sierra-LaMar-Volunteers-web-shoesMarlene LaMar, Sierra’s mother, does not go to court proceedings. She focuses on the positive aspects of how the search brings strangers together to become friends.

“I believe that all the searchers are very passionate about the mission,” she said. “It’s like a battle, you know, against the things that can happen in the world today. It forms fellowship and solidarity in the war against evil.”

Marlene wants people to remember her daughter as a vibrant young woman who loved people and lived her life to the fullest. At a February court meeting for Garcia Torres, she said, one of the searchers held a sign that read “Sierra matters.” And that message should never be forgotten as the process of justice proceeds, Marlene said.

Sierra loved to sing and dance. She would imitate female rap artists. And she was also an accomplished performer at the Yoko’s Dance Studio in Fremont where her radiant personality and smile often put her in the front of the dance line.

On the week of her disappearance, Sierra was planning to write an essay for one of her Sobrato classes about depression and suicide, Marlene said.

“A week and a half before she was abducted, she had some friends who had depression issues, and she told me, ‘You know mom, I have a gift, and that gift is lifting my friends up when they’re really depressed,’” Marlene said. “‘I believe God gave me that gift.’”

That characteristic of compassion started at an early age. In second grade, Marlene remembers, Sierra helped one of her fellow students who was deaf and had trouble talking. Some of the other children ostracized the boy, but Sierra stepped in and helped tutor him.

“She’s very free-spirited,” the mother said about her daughter. “She speaks her mind and she’s very righteous for causes that are not just within the U.S. but things that happen in third world countries such as the sex trafficking, the stuff that happens in Africa where they kidnap the kids and use them for the warlord armies. She has a lot of compassion for stuff like that… And she is goofy, lighthearted and goofy.”

Sierra’s father Steve LaMar described his daughter as always laughing and seeing the fun in life with her friends and her older sister, Danielle LaMar.

“She was a happy-go-lucky girl with her friends, always joking around with her friends,” he recalled. “She was always goofing around. She had a lot of close friends at school, and was always doing things with them. And at home she had a great relationship with Danielle. They would make fun at things I would do.”

Marlene notes that Sierra has given many people she never knew a great gift. Hundreds of people over the past three years have found a purpose and a peace in their search for the missing Sobrato student.

“It’s brought together people who have gone through tragedy themselves. It helps them go outside the box and into their comfort zone and be a part of something greater and helps them heal,” she said. “It helps them plant a lot of seeds and heal wounds.”

On a misty day in March three years ago, Sierra LaMar never came home. In their quest to find closure for her family, Sierra’s searchers have come together and created a family that seeks to bring her home.

Editor’s note: In our April 1 issue we will write about the last search for Sierra before they were suspended.

Justice Center delivers help to DV victims

MH site will make it easier, more convenient for victims

Published in the August 6 – 19, 2014 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Staff Report

Photo by Marty Cheek  Aide Fernandez Portillo  speaks to members of the press at the opening of the new Family Justice Center at Community Solutions.

Photo by Marty Cheek
Aide Fernandez Portillo speaks to members of the press at the opening of the new Family Justice Center at Community Solutions.

Aide Fernandez Portillo said she feared for her safety and that of her two children because a former spouse tried to kill her three times. When the domestic violence case went to the court system, she would have faced the inconvenience of taking many hours off and finding transportation to San Jose. But with the urging of the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office, she received help from Morgan Hill’s Community Solutions in dealing with the difficult situation.

“They put me in contact with Victim Witness,” Portillo said through a Spanish language translator. “I’m very happy with the therapy I received because for me it was very difficult due to time issues and constraints in transportation to travel to San Jose.”

To help other victims of domestic crimes, a Family Justice Center was launched last month at the Community Solutions office at 16264 Church St. in Morgan Hill.

“This center is a one-stop location where South County residents can access services relating to domestic violence,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman said.

The center will be open every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 5 p.m.

“As your District Attorney, I know that violence begets violence,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said. “Children of abusers learn to respond to stress and conflict with violence, whether that happens in their homes or the community at large, in the streets or in the school. Thus our entire community benefits when the cycle of domestic violence is broken. The Family Justice Center can help break that cycle.”

Extreme Learning Center helps ignite students’ passion for knowledge

Center provides trained professional tutors to help ‘make the light go on’

Published on Page 3 of the August 21, 2013 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Staff Report

Sarah Zare

Sarah Zare

School students sometimes need extra help outside the classroom to “make the light go on” inside their minds and understand a complex academic concept.

Located near downtown Morgan Hill, Extreme Learning Center helps students with their homework and other school assignments by providing trained professional tutors to help them better grasp information.

Sarah Zare, the center’s manager, has worked at Extreme Learning since 2006. She has spent her career in the field of education, taking roles including a preschool director, a high school teacher, and as the regional operations manager with The Phoenix Children’s Academy & Extreme Learning. Morgan Hill Life asked Zare about Extreme Learning’s philosophy of helping young people learn better.

Describe the Extreme Learning Center and its mission to help students.

In 2001, David Payne and Mary Smathers, both local educators with a desire to provide kindergarten through 12th-grade students with affordable, high-quality academic support and enrichment programs, established Extreme Learning Center.

Our program uses technology to ignite student’s passion for learning while boosting their academic achievement. We provide Morgan Hill families with a variety of academic and enrichment courses including traditional one-on-one tutoring, homework help, small group academic support, test preparation, transportation, enrichment classes, and camps.

What academic benefit do children gain from professional tutoring?

We understand each student comes to us with unique learning needs, schooling and family background. By identifying target areas we create a specific plan for the student to gain academic proficiency while providing an enriching environment for academic and personal growth.

How are your professional tutors selected and what are their qualifications?

Academic Coaches at Extreme are required to have a minimum of two years of college coursework completed, experience working with students, and a passion and understanding of the importance of education. Currently, 90 percent of our coaches have completed a bachelor’s degree program and are working towards further degrees such as in law and medicine. All of our potential coaches are paired with an experienced coach in a working interview so that their interactions with Extreme Learning students can be assessed.

Before being hired and working with students individually, our coaches are approved to work with children through CCLD (Community Care Licensing Division), Livescan (a fingerprint service) through the Department of Justice and FBI, and complete the Extreme Learning training program.

How can parents work with tutors to help their child’s academic performance?

Open communication and setting goals prior to starting any of our services is key to having a successful outcome. We encourage our parents and their student to meet with their coach-tutor prior to starting their academic service to foster an open and friendly relationship and set achievable goals.

What are some tips for students when they are working with a tutor?

First, come with an open mind. We know students that approach us for tutoring, typically are already frustrated with their academic progress. We will set goals together to achieve maximum results. Second, be prepared. What are you struggling with? Do you need help on a specific homework assignment? When you come prepared, we are able to focus your needs for that specific session. Third, ask questions. As cliché as it may sound, there is no stupid question. When a student asks questions, we can see where struggles are occurring in order to overcome them. Fourth, have fun. Education is fun, and your tutor wants to make your session something you want to come to each week. We teach techniques that not only help you remember what you are learning, but make your session fun too.

Extreme Learning was founded in 2002 by David Payne, a former school principal, to improve children and families’ experiences with the California education system. The first Extreme Learning Center opened that year in Morgan Hill. In July 2003, the company began offering an Academic Support Program and Exit Exam preparation to school districts. Extreme Learning currently serves more than 13,000 students per year in 1,000 schools across 98 districts throughout California with their onsite and online programs.

Officer honored for role in helping South County domestic violence victims

MHPD’s Mindy Zen was instrumental in helping found the South County Family Justice Center

Published in the April 12 – April 25, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Staff Report

MHPD Officer Melinda Zen

The Helping Hands & Healing Hearts awards luncheon annually honors a South Valley community leader dedicated to improving the lives of others and a former Community Solutions client who has triumphed over personal adversity and changed the course of his/her future. This year’s lunch was held Friday March 16 and honored Morgan Hill Police Department officer Melinda Zen and a one-time client known as “Aurelia,” a survivor of domestic violence.

Gilroy Life asked Community Solutions President/CEO Erin O’Brien about the annual fundraising event and why the two women were honored.

What is the Helping Hands & Healing Hearts Awards Luncheon and why does Community Solutions put it on each year?

Our agency always wants to thank the community for making our work possible. While we select one person or organization to recognize each year as the Helping Hand recipient, we really exist because so many individuals, businesses and organizations support our work and our clients. The luncheon enables us to invite our supporters into our clients’ lives through the premiere of our annual client video and the words of our Healing Heart recipient. It is an opportunity for our guests to hear first-hand the difference their support makes.

Why is it important to recognize local community leaders who make the South Valley region a better place for all?

There are so many wonderful people doing remarkable things for others in our community and it’s important to share that good news. While Community Solutions works hard to improve the lives of our clients, we are but one organization and we do not operate in a vacuum. So many individuals and organizations support the healing of our clients through the work they do both as professionals and volunteers. Most do not seek recognition but we believe they deserve it. We have a deep and heartfelt gratitude to each and we look forward to the opportunity to share this.

Why was MHPD Officer Melinda Zen honored with this year’s award?

Officer Zen, now back on street patrol, was the domestic violence detective for the Morgan Hill Police Department from 2012 to 2016. She worked with survivors at their most vulnerable moments. She always approached them with respect, acceptance and compassion, empowering them to make necessary but sometimes difficult decisions to ensure their safety and healing. At a more institutional level, Officer Zen was instrumental in helping found the South County Family Justice Center and a key member of the South County Domestic Violence Response Team, both roles that helped ensure the seamless collaboration between law enforcement and service agencies such as ours.

Why was former Community Solutions client Aurelia presented with the award? What personal obstacles did she overcome that makes her an honoree?

As a survivor of domestic violence, Aurelia had to overcome the fear her abuser instilled in her on a daily basis just to reach out for help. She realized that what might seem too risky to do just for herself she absolutely needed to do to protect her son. Aurelia has worked diligently toward her own healing knowing it makes her a better mother. She has a favorite saying, “solo para delante, para atras ni para darte impulso” which translates to “always move forward — never go backward — not even to gain momentum.”

Senior profile… Denise Turner: After 31 years in law enforcement, nine in Gilroy, police chief retiring

Denise Turner helped start South County Youth Task Force

Published in the January 4-17, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo by Marty Cheek
Gilroy Police Chief Denise Turner in the emergency dispatch center of the police department.

After a career spanning 31 years in law enforcement, Gilroy Police Chief Denise Turner will begin her retirement years New Year’s Day having earned a tremendous amount of respect from her colleagues in local public safety agencies including the Morgan Hill Police Department.

Turner has had a regional focus on issues of crime in South County, impacting the quality of life for the more than 100,000 residents who make their homes here, said Morgan Hill Police Chief David Swing.

“There are many examples of her regional focus, however, two set themselves apart,” he said. “First, she spearheaded efforts to form the South County Youth Task Force to find solutions to youth and gang violence in the region. Second, she also supported the South County Family Justice Center, which serves survivors of domestic violence and is a model program for the county. I am thankful for Denise’s service to South County and know that her work will have a positive effect on the region for years to come.”

The 58-year-old Turner was born and raised in Portland, Ore. She started work as a reserve deputy in 1981 for the King County Sheriff’s Office, which serves the Seattle metropolitan area. She came to Gilroy nine years ago and made her home here when the city recruited her for the police chief’s position.

Her father and uncle were both police officers for the Portland Police Bureau, so she grew up in a law enforcement family. Her two older sisters knew they wanted to be police officers so they got into the field before her, some of the first women who were hired to work patrol, she said.

Retiring Gilroy Police Chief Denise Turner receives a plaque from Gilroy Mayor Perry Woodward Dec. 5 recognizing her contribution to public safety in the region. She played a role in creating the South County Youth Task Force.
Photo courtesy Gilroy Police Foundation

“I didn’t really know that I wanted to become a cop,” she said. “I was working in computers and technology back then, and I went on a ride-along one night in the middle of winter with my sister in Alaska on a patrol around Anchorage. I saw what she did and instantly I was hooked. I thought it was the coolest job ever. If my sister could do it, I could do it.”

Aspects of the job she admired was that police officers needed to be independent, use discretion in helping people and stay positive during stressful calls, she said.

“Every day she had a different day, it was not the same job,” Turner said of the ride-along experience. “She treated people really well. That was my image of how cops interact with citizens. I got the bug.”

Being one of the first women in a career that had traditionally been dominated by men, she said she developed her personal skills in relating to members of the public in often tense situations.

“I definitely think our size does matter. Obviously being smaller and not as physical as our male counterparts, you truly have to have the ability to do mental judo and talk to people and de-escalate them just using words and your body language. I think that also serves us well,” she said. “But we also are trained in the sense that we have to use some sort of defensive tactic or weapons — we’re very skillful and competent in that. They don’t let you out of the academy until you can demonstrate 100 percent you’re ready.”

Coming to the slower-paced Garlic Capital of the World was a major shift for her to adjust to compared to life in the bustling Seattle, she said.

“Just getting to know the culture of the department and the community culture, it was fun,” she said. “It was really fun to change my life in mid-stream and come here and learn about Gilroy and what makes us so special. Instantly, I loved it and realized what a gem this department is.”

The Gilroy Police Department’s staff has “very high morale” and its people are professional, passionate and live to the department’s core values, Turner said.

“When you hear them talk to people who are in trouble, kids or families we have to come across for some reason, you know they truly have a good heart,” she said. “They care about people and they’re not just out there like the cops and robber shows you see on TV. That was important to know that we have a great team. We have very few complaints, and we have very few (internal affairs) investigations.”

Gilroy is also a community where residents respect and support their police. The city in 2015 started a nonprofit organization called the Gilroy Police Foundation, modeled on Morgan Hill’s Community Law Enforcement Foundation, to raise funds for equipment and programs for officers.

When Turner started her new job in Gilroy in March 2008, the city faced a serious gang problem which had gone on for years.

Then-mayor Don Gage started the Gilroy Gang Task Force to focus on intervention and apprehension work. The organization expanded in January 2012 into the South County Youth Task Force to collaborate with the Morgan Hill Police Department, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department and both Gilroy and Morgan Hill’s school districts to address the effects of violence and gangs on young people in the region.

“We knew we had about 900 gang members, it was huge,” Turner said on the criminal problem when she arrived in Gilroy to serve as police chief. “We had gang homicides and assaults with deadly weapons. Kids were getting jumped into gangs. They were preferring the gang lifestyle because they felt like a family. So we stepped back with the folks and we talked about how do you change that culture, how do you change the desire to become part of a gang.”

The major crack-down on gangs came with Operation Garlic Press and Royal Flush in which officers from several agencies did undercover work for 18 months to learn who the gang members were. The officers were able to close down an entire gang that had held a stronghold on Gilroy for many years. Most of the members were put in prison, some for life.

“That was huge because that disrupted the presence and stronghold that they had,” Turner said. “On the other side, because you don’t just have to take it out but you have to make sure another one doesn’t come in behind them, we really focused on the prevention and intervention side of things. We worked really close with the schools and went out and got grants from the state for gang prevention. And we hired a gang prevention coordinator and we started coming together and made sure we were working together to try and create things for kids who are at risks to do.”

Turner, who is married to the city of Santa Clara’s Police Chief Mike Sellers, will continue to make her home in Gilroy. She will spend much of her time volunteering with the Compassion Center, the Gilroy Rotary Club and the local Exchange Club.

“It’s a pretty amazing area. I love it and it’s grown on me,” she said. “It’s interesting because I came from a big city, and so just driving around Gilroy in the outskirts and unincorporated areas and looking at the land and how they farm the lands, and how the crops turn over and the fruits and vegetables that come from this area, it’s pretty cool.”

Editorial: Eliminating SC court services in MH proves burdensome

Published in the March 30 – April 12, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

South-County-Courthouse-webMorgan Hill is home to a downtown courthouse that opened in 2009 to serve the judicial needs of the people of the South Valley region. But despite the original intentions of having a conveniently located facility to do court-related business, residents of Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy must make the drive north to San Jose or Santa Clara to dispute a traffic ticket with a judge, or for small claims, civil and family court cases.

The traffic, civil and small claims units were closed in the South County Courthouse Oct. 6, 2014. The family law unit was closed in the building Jan. 19, 2016, so residents must go to the downtown San Jose Family Justice Center Courthouse to file for legal proceedings such as divorce, restraining orders, child support and other cases.

At the March 16 Morgan Hill City Council meeting, council members voted to submit a letter to Judge Rise Jones Pichon of the Superior Court system in the county to reinstate the traffic court in the South County Superior Court facilities.

“The cessation of services has had a negative impact on access to services for South County residents and caused significant operational challenges for South County law enforcement,” the letter reads. “The loss of services has disproportionately affected Morgan Hill and the rest of South County in comparison to the rest of the county.”

We agree with the council on bringing back the traffic court to the South County court facilities in downtown Morgan Hill to serve residents living in the southern portion of the county. We also would like to see other justice services such as family law, civil and small claims brought back to the courthouse here. Those who need to engage in the justice system have to endure a 45 to 60 minute one-way car ride during commute hours to reach facilities in San Jose or Santa Clara. It’s especially an arduous burden on people with low incomes who might need to use public transportation because they do not own a car or can’t get access to a vehicle.

The South Valley region has a higher number of people living at the poverty level than other parts of Santa Clara County. So having access to these justice services at the downtown Morgan Hill courthouse is extremely important to residents in our communities who live in a lower socio-economic level. They are more likely to be intimidated or disenfranchised because of the difficulty in going farther north to deal with court-related matters. Removing the barrier of a longer commute would mean much to this group of residents who might not be able to take time off of work or easily afford child care services to spend long hours traveling to and from the north county courthouses.

The issue of lack of the various court service in the South County Courthouse also hits other areas of our region’s society, including adding extra burden to Morgan Hill and Gilroy law-enforcement personnel that the police departments in other municipalities in the county do not face. The city of Morgan Hill does not have quantifiable data showing what fiscal impact might hit taxpayers because of this situation. But the police department assured the city council that impact is a real burden on the level of service the police can provide residents because of this situation.

Pichon manages the county’s court budget, determining the administration of court houses from Palo Alto to Morgan Hill. The city council’s letter to her emphasizes: “The impact on law enforcement over the past 18 months cannot also be over-stated. Previously, when an on-duty officer appeared for traffic court, he or she simply appears on-duty and other officers provided the needed coverage for the absence knowing the officer was nearby if a critical incident occurred. Now if the team is at minimum staffing levels, the department must call an officer in on overtime to accommodate the on-duty officer’s court obligations.”

The decision to remove many of the various court services in the South County Courthouse and bring them to courthouses to the north was made based on budget-cutting considerations on the state level. Unfortunately, any savings that might be accrued are negated because the costs of time and transportation are passed on to residents in the South County. And as the southern county region grows in population during the coming years, the negative economic and quality of life impact on not having these services close by will only increase on our residents.

We encourage the return to the South County Courthouse of all the justice-related services. In a democratic society the right to convenient and unburdened access to the judicial system should be mandatory for all citizens, especially those who might be hardest hit economically.