Beyond their community gardens: Fresh Start reaps a bountiful family harvest

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ONTARIO, Calif. — Warm brown eyes, an engaging smile, plus his commitment as a youth leader demonstrate Hassan Awad's transformation since becoming involved at Fresh Start Ministries and Community Services. The 16-year-old "has definitely come out of his shell," said Office Manager Preston Hickey. Their easy banter about Hickey's disappearing keys makes that obvious.

Hassan was only 12, when his sister, Jamileh, got into some trouble that resulted in her being assigned to community service at Fresh Start Ministries. Executive Director Richard Hernandez said teens can be sent to Fresh Start for everything from ditching school, fighting and petty theft to more serious legal issues. The nonprofit provides social and supportive services with the goal of improving "the well-being of our community; by meeting the needs of the whole person— physically, mentally and spiritually."

To do that, said Hernandez, Fresh Start offers a mentoring program for children and young adults ages 8 to 24. They also provide Positive Parental Training for parents of at-risk youth and professional counseling in the areas of family relations, anger management and substance abuse.

According to Hernandez, mentors teach youth life skills during service hours mandated by either their high schools or the courts. As a result, the kids are taught about responsibility and how to give back. Some help feed the homeless or work in one of three community gardens. Others assist with DUI checks or service projects such as the Rotary Club's car show.

"Those who are able can work in the office or learn to use the computers that have been donated," Hickey said.


Basic skills
Help is available for preparing resumes and finding all types of work. Recently, Hernandez said, Fresh Start found warehouse jobs for 15 students—despite the difficult economy.

Underlying all of the ministry activity, he said, is the subtle way volunteers demonstrate the love of Jesus. A weekly one-hour Bible study for all ages introduces those who choose to attend about the importance of a relationship with Jesus.

Those programs were witnessed first-hand when Jamileh started her community service at Fresh Start as her little brother tagged along.

"Before that," Hassan said, "I was really shy and stayed home a lot."

At first, their Palestinian mother "would not allow anyone in her family to attend the Saturday morning study because of the family's Muslim beliefs," Hernandez said. But over time she relented and Hassan started coming with his sister.

"Eventually he asked Jesus Christ to be his Lord and Savior."

Hassan said he also began sitting in on other meetings.

"One day Richard asked some of us to be youth leaders, so I just stayed," the teen said. "I think it's changed me. I've really gotten closer to God."

Fresh Start has also helped Hassan become more outgoing and active in the community.

"Much of the nonprofit's work is done by youth leaders like Hassan, Hernandez said. "We have about seven and tell everyone they are the ones that run the show."

Hernandez's 17-year-old daughter, Linda, a part of Fresh Start since its beginning in 2004, is the director of Youth Leaders.

"I could be hanging out with my friends," she said, "but I like being here."

Recently Linda led a three-member team to teach a Bible study at the Salvation Army. She deliberately recruited troublemakers and partiers who once "thought going to a Bible Study was so lame." After seeing how Linda interacted with the children, her cohorts "took the lead and loved it." It was such a rewarding experience that one young man committed to continue helping out.

One little girl especially delighted the team, Linda said. Despite being part of an unruly group, this child came to them afterward and summarized the Bible story.

"That's what it's all about," Hernandez said. "You never know who's going to be touched. One individual makes everything worth it."

Hickey, the office manager, said they also try to reward the youth leaders in more tangible ways, whenever possible.

"Those who are really cooperative, work well and show an interest in ministry we've taken on special trips to such places as the Museum of Tolerance or Raging Waters. The last several years we've been kindly given tickets to The Pageant of the Masters."

All of it points to new open doors.

"Some of these kids would never get these opportunities otherwise," said Hernandez.


Blessing of volunteers
Adult volunteers contribute hundreds of hours to make it possible to accomplish so much, Hernandez said. He and Hickey currently donate 20 to 30 hours or more each week.

"We have realized the importance of collaboration with other agencies including local government, state and federal agencies," the director said. "We work closely with businesses, schools, law enforcement, faith-based nonprofit agencies and churches."

To continue growing, Hernandez said they need to hire paid staff but raising funds is a constant challenge. They hope to continue expanding the efforts that have won Fresh Start Ministries and Community Services recognition from such dignitaries as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bishop Edward R. Turner, Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca and others.

The ministry relies on God to meet their needs. Only a year ago, between 30 and 40 people crowded into one small room for their Bible study, Hernandez said. But God's response to prayer supplied a building with office space, a computer lab, a food pantry, two large multipurpose areas and a conference room. Now Fresh Start even has space for a community garden.

Sometimes Hassan's mom can be found working there, when she's not too busy volunteering elsewhere around the organization that's meant so much to her family.

For information on Fresh Start Ministries, visit www.freshstartmininc.org.


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