Monday Q&A: Westside Ministries still going strong at 30; director handing over the reins

JoLynn DiGrazia, director of Westside Ministries in Turlock.
JoLynn DiGrazia, director of Westside Ministries in Turlock. dnoda@modbee.com

Thirty years ago, JoLynn DiGrazia was a teacher at Osborn Elementary School in Turlock who decided to host a Saturday afternoon Bible study for a few children.

Those kids brought more kids, and some of them brought family members. Many of them were hungry, so DiGrazia and her husband started feeding them. Afternoons stretched into evenings, and the small Bible group became what is now Westside Ministries, a nonprofit group on Turlock’s west side that serves the needy in ways ranging from basic foods to elite dance training.

DiGrazia took a few minutes to answer some questions about the organization.

How did Westside Ministries come about?

Westside Ministries began in 1984 borne out of the needs that I saw in children whom I was teaching at Osborn School. It started with a Bible Club on Saturdays for neighborhood children. I moved to the neighborhood and our home became the “home” for WSM for the first 15 years.

Describe some of the changes the organization has undergone over the years.

WSM has gone from a group of 40-plus children learning the Bible in my home, to a traveling group of 200 borrowing church social halls, to the 2-acre property we currently inhabit. We are now hosting a 4-H program called Community Cultivators; a dance school, Center for Urban Performance and Service; as well as Bible clubs and a feeding program that serves hot meals to more than 200 people a night.

Would you say the need among those you serve is greater or less than 30 years ago? Why?

I would have to say that the needs have changed in complexity and substance but are foundationally the same. Alcohol and gangbanging turned to methamphetamine use and manufacture. The recent recession has caused a rise in the needs of children as parents in some cases have been unable to provide an evening meal for their children. Hearts continually have needed to be filled with hope in someone and something bigger than ourselves. Faith and imparting to children the hunger for a new way to live has been the constant.

Tell us a success story from someone you have served.

One incredible “success story” would have to be Rachel Rodriguez West Grant, whom we met when she was in the eighth grade. She moved here from Texas and made friends with kids from our teen group and began attending WSM. She needed a place to stay when she was in high school and came to live with Dean and Amy West, who provided a college education as well as love and encouragement. After graduation from Turlock High and Westmont University, she began to work for World Vision and eventually ended up working for USAID. A high point of my life was seeing her on CNN directing the food aid to Haiti earthquake efforts. She was recognized by President Obama as well.

What is the biggest need? How would you encourage people to get involved in helping?

At this time of year we are always looking toward Christmas. We are the Coats for Kids headquarters for the city of Turlock. We need coats for children in all sizes as well as toys and folks to give haircuts. Used coats can be dropped off at any Carr’s Cleaners. We also are attempting to purchase a reefer trailer to be used to transport and hold food donations. This would not only benefit our organization but all of Stanislaus County as we share what we receive.

What are your plans for the 30th anniversary celebration?

We are hosting a 30th anniversary party at WSM on Oct. 18. We have a climbing wall and other activities for children as well as a gourmet meal and encouragement from Dr. Roger Ovalle.

What’s next for WSM?

This year I suffered a heart attack and have made the decision to move up the “turning over the reins” to Lydio Banana and Jesus Murillo. They are proven leaders who are preparing themselves for my retirement. Our vision for the future includes our desire to expand our 4-H gardens as well as the creative arts.