In 1994, Del Paso Heights was showing all the signs of distress that come with isolation from the economic mainstream. The Mutual Assistance Network (MAN) came into being to support families in helping each other build back their community and their lives. Such collaboration meant bridging cultural divides among the African American families who had lived there for many, many years and Hispanic, Pacific Islander and Asian immigrants, primarily Hmong from Laos.
Jose Gutierrez might have become one more statistic contributing to a historically low graduation rate of 48 percent in the local high school during the mide-1990s. He was in ninth grade in 1997 and on the school’s list of troubled teens. MAN linked Gutierrez with one of the very first peer mentors in Operation Graduation, a program that hires junior and senior high school students to mentor younger youth. The concerns of neighborhood families watching so many of their young people drop out, prompted MAN to develop the programs. Within a year, he had improved his grades and decided to become a mentor himself. Gutierrez, whose career goal is to work with youth, is now an assistant coordinator of Operation Graduation. And at the local high school, the graduation rate has climbed to 73 percent.
MAN has established trust by taking its direction from community members acting together to their common interests. For an outreach program making home visits to families, MAN hires and trains local residents, who gain steady income for their own families as they help their neighbors. When neighborhood residents identified a lack of services for seniors, especially those rearing grandchildren, MAN developed support groups for these families to share resources and strengthen each other.
In an unusual public-private partnership, MAN works closely with Sacramento County to give families a wide array of supports. Neighborhood residents can get help finding jobs and developing careers to increase their families’ incomes. Through MAN, they can access childcare, youth programs and extensive services that help families become self-sufficient.
A non-profit community development corporation, MAN also brings jobs and services into the community. In April 2004, MAN will break ground on Neighborhood Central, a $2.6 million center for families that will house retail shops at street level and MAN and county social services above.
MAN’s approach to community building ¾ bottom-up and integrative ¾ began with its first project: a community garden created by residents in 1994. Nine years later, the garden not only provides healthy food to neighborhood families, but also has given rise to a youth garden. Community teenagers grow flowers and vegetables that they sell to Sacramento businesses. MAN has grown into one of the community’s largest private employers with an operating budget of almost $2 million.