Monday Q&A: Westside Ministries in Turlock meets many needs

mrowland@modbee.comMay 19, 2013 

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— When JoLynn DiGrazia sees a need, she fills it.

See kids who need a safe place to go outside of school? Start a ministry for children, which has grown from 40 students on Saturdays to more than 300 kids ages 3 to 18 daily.

See children who need structure to stay out of trouble? Turn that group into the nonprofit organization Westside Ministries, which offers agricultural, sports, dance and music classes with hundreds of students enrolled each season.

See a community that needs to be fed? Begin a daily meal program, which now serves more than 200 dinners Monday through Thursday.

See families who need help finding that first home? Offer a low-cost housing program, which is about to add its sixth home.

Since 1984, DiGrazia has been executive director of Turlock's Westside Ministries, which serves the city's often poorer west side. The group started in a friend's living room, then moved to the home of DiGrazia and her husband. Over the years, they've added popular 4H, dance and sports programs and a free drop-in youth center.

In 1992, they started to develop a donated 2.1-acre property at 950 Columbia St., which is now their headquarters. They also own a 2.3-acre farm about a mile and a half away. Through livestock and their gardens, they raise about a third of the food prepared on site daily.

Kids at the center know DiGrazia by name, and she seems to know all their names back, inquiring with them about their siblings and family. The former Osborn Elementary School kindergarten and first-grade teacher has run the ministry with a small paid staff and army of volunteers for 29 years without taking a salary.

This year, Westside Ministries took on some high-profile projects. It launched the successful Kaptown T-shirt fund-raiser in honor of hometown hero and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Last month, the organization took over the popular regional High School Principals Spanish Lip Sync from El Concilio, which had to cancel because of a lack of funds.

DiGrazia still lives only a few blocks away from the center, and is there every day except Sunday — though sometimes also on Sunday.

Q: How has the mission and scope of Westside Ministries changed, if at all, since it was founded in 1984?

A: It's gotten bigger. The biggest problem when we started was gangs. Then the gang members started selling meth. Then the gang members started using meth. The recession changed what we did. Seeing kids who were hungry, asking if they could come home to eat with me. The meal program and housing program all launched since the recession. We want to support families spiritually, physically, emotionally and educationally.

Q: As founding director, what has kept you motived to do this work — and unpaid — over all these years?

A: I did take a small salary for three months once, but it didn't feel right. You know, we probably have 10 failures for every one success story here. But many times, it's the failures that are successes in my heart. You realize the frailty of the human condition, and there but for the grace of God go I. This work is really gratifying and we're just really proud of the kids. To see a kid go off to college who never even considered that part of their vocabulary before is exciting.

Q: You have stepped up recently, taking on some high-profile projects. How have those helped move Westside Ministries forward?

A: For us, we want the underserved to know about us. We didn't do this to get people to recognize who we are, we did this as a way to reach out to more people. The Kaptown shirts, we started out just making them for our kids and then more people want them and we sold over 400 T-shirts. Lip sync is one of those programs I really believe in. It's such a great opportunity for principals to get to know kids who might not ordinarily be involved in school. We lost $7,000 on that. But the program makes a difference.

Q: Looking forward, what are your goals for the ministry in the next few years?

A: People think I'm crazy, but I would like to buy more houses. The opportunity to help people save money and buy their own home is life-changing. By the time I retire, I'd like to start a women's home. And I'd like to expand out food storage so we have more space and can serve more.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Turlock's west side, particularly its youth?

A: The continual battleground is methamphetamine use. The property crimes go along with it. People not wanting to rent and live here goes along with it. There's also a general lack of work and opportunities.

Q: What can nonprofits do to be more effective in the community?

A: The most effective way to reach out is to live amongst them. Don't come in and out. Spend a lot of time listening to them, eating with them, crying with them.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee. com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/turlocknow.

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