The real assets in Calexico High’s ASSETs program

CALEXICO, Calif.–Jovan Rojas had a lot of trouble making friends on his high school campus. For a lot of adolescents, painful insecurities can be a repellant to their peers. “I was not very mature and had problems socializing with anyone,” said Rojas, now 18 and a senior at Calexico High School. “After joining the program I have felt improvement in myself and I am told from tutors that I have improved a lot.”

That program, the After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens, or ASSETs, a grant-based project provided under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and administered by California’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, was launched at Calexico High in February 2010 with a five-year $1.5 million grant. ASSETs is aimed at involving latchkey kids, or at-risk teens who have no place to go and nothing to do when that final school bell rings for the day.

Stemming the strays through Imperial Valley’s S.A.N.D.S.

IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif.–It is difficult to commute from town to town here without encountering any number of dead animals on or near the roadway on any given day; some motorists swerve around the remains, others seem to deliberately aim at the already-decimated animals—dead pigeons on city streets, rabbits or coyotes on rural roads, and countless other carcasses on the I-8 freeway heading east and west between Arizona and San Diego. But most of the time, the heart-wrenching sight of small furry victims on any local street or major byway are stray dogs or cats whose owners might, or might not be wondering where their pets have gone. “From June to November, 500 dogs were picked up (both alive and dead), 169 cats (both alive and dead),” according to Beatrice Palacio, animal control supervisor for the Imperial County Public Health Department, which is charged with policing a 4,500-square-mile realm outside of the county’s cities’ limits. “Live roosters and chickens, dead raccoons, dead skunks, coyotes, and a live sheep, for a total of 707 animals.” And that’s only what Palacio has been able to log in a five-month period of 2012, unknowing if the animals were abandoned, lost, or feral. Holiday generosity and a bad economy

Usually this time of year animal rights organizations often use statistics like those about stray animals to illustrate to holiday revelers how ill-advised impulsive buys of pets as Christmas gifts can be for recipients who may or may not want a furry or feathered friend; who may or may not know how to care for them, or cannot afford to.

Life–or Death–In the Salton Sea

WESTMORLAND, Calif.–About 40 miles north of the Mexican border in southeastern California is a large, salt-water lake known to the world as the Salton Sea.  It is the largest inland sea in the world, and the saltiest. Originally a small piece of ancient Lake Cahuilla, the Salton Basin is about 380 square miles and ranges in depth to a maximum of 51 feet.  In 1905, dams used to diverge the Colorado River failed, flooding the basin without stopping until 1907.  Since then the sea has been fed by natural runoff from surrounding mountains and agricultural irrigation. Throughout the last 100 years, the sea has had periods of shrinking and expanding shorelines along with large die-offs of fish and fowl, creating a reputation for the lake as a “dead sea” in the public’s eye.  Part of the blame lies with rising salinity in the water, which is currently 10 times saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Along the shoreline is the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge–2,200 acres of freshwater marshlands and home to more than 460 species of birds.  The Salton Sea’s salty waters are the refuge’s habitat. Dozens of proposals over the last 20 years to “fix” the Salton Sea have gone no where.

Unwritten rules guide homeless in Imperial Valley

EL CENTRO, Calif. – Vagabonds, vagrants, transients, nomads, hobos, or even the more polite term we use for them, the less fortunate. There are plenty of names for them, but they all refer to the homeless – a subculture of our society that some people often feel uncomfortable with. We often encounter them on a daily basis. At the end of freeway off-ramps, in city parks, fast food restaurants, or sitting outside our own homes under a shady tree.

Earthquake victims in California and Haiti build together in the aftermath

IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif.–A plate heaped with rice, sloppy beans, and chunks of questionable meat was lovingly set before Shelby Drye one evening in March 2010 in Barbancourt, Haiti. His poverty-stricken, disaster-weary dinner hosts shared just one paltry plate of the same food among themselves. It’s a meal Drye will never forget. “They wanted to make sure we ate before they did,” he said, remembering that he did not want to eat what was offered to him that evening two months after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake ripped through the Caribbean nation on January 12, 2010. But, because of the sincere depth of their gift, he ate anyway.

Imperial Valley residents feel the financial pinch a year after the Easter earthquake

IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif.–Recovery from the Easter Sunday 7.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked California’s Imperial Valley on April 4, 2010, has been slow for many whose homes or business buildings suffered damage in the historic temblor. In the county seat of El Centro alone losses are estimated at $8 million to buildings and property, according to Ruben Duran, city manager for the City of El Centro. “Everything that we are doing, we are doing on our own dime,” said Duran, who explained during a March 22 news conference that a big part of the county’s recovery is the actual financing of repairs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency committed $178,000, but that might not materialize for decades, Duran noted. FEMA’s contribution is assigned by Congress, but subsequently declared disasters can bump funding for the previous ones.

Imperial Valley students demonstrate sign language is not just for the deaf

IMPERIAL, Calif.–When Nathan Enriquez first met his girlfriend Jocelyn Mirola two years ago, they didn’t know how to speak to each other. Not in the way that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but they truly couldn’t communicate. “I liked Jocelyn and was interested in the way she communicated with others,” said Enriquez, a second-year student at Imperial Valley College. “But in order to get to know her I had to learn sign language.”

Mirola, 19, became deaf following a serious fever when she was 2 years old. Life was difficult, but Jocelyn persevered and is studying to become a counselor and make-up artist.

Teen authors of the California border pave their way through self-publishing

IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif.–Teenagers all over the world are anticipating the June 30 movie release of “Eclipse,” the third installment in the phenomenal “Twilight” saga, to see how the romantic fantasy about a teenage girl and her intense love affair with a vampire continues to play out. The “Twilight” books, written by Stephanie Meyer, inspired the movie series and a cult following of both readers and movie-goers around the globe.  But during the last decade, that inspiration was not limited to just reading or watching the mythical and unorthodox teen romance stories; inspiration bled over into the minds of young writers, including those in the Imperial Valley. Often seen as culturally dry as the desert it occupies, the Imperial Valley is home to several young authors who have crafted their own fantasies in the pages of books that are sold on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, at the local bookstore, and can be found in local libraries.  These youthful writers have not experienced the notoriety of Meyer – at least not yet. Angela Ly, 16, is writing her second novel.  “The book is going to be about a different dimension, but in this world,” Ly said.  “There will be action and adventure, somewhat like Twilight.”  The Brawley High School junior self-published her first book, “Birds to Fly Me to You” in 2009. Fantasy adventures like “The Way to Fairyleland” and “The Collusion Series” have sprung from the minds of local teen authors prolifically in recent years.  Publishing house Wandering Sage Books recently released a commemorative edition of “The Way to Fairyleland,” by Belén Ramos, and a third young writer, Alexandra Lopez, is penning her third and fourth books.

Slab City artists play their music free and easy

NILAND, Calif.–In a small secluded area on the outskirts of this desert town, a mish-mash of trailers and tents surround a big stage that unites the people of Slab City in a very unique way and brings their musical talents to life every Saturday night. Slab City is a tiny “town” where there are no bills to pay, no running water or electricity, and when nature calls, you choose your bush.  And yet there are about 50 people who live here year round, even in the harsh summer months when temperatures can reach 118 degrees and “residents” spend a lot of time cooling off in nearby irrigation canals. “Most of the people who live out here in Slab City have lost their home, money, and family, so they have nowhere else to go,” said Sean Paul, a U.S. Army combat veteran. “I can eat out of a can. I am used to this, but a suburban American might find living here a challenge.”

Paul said he arrived in Slab City about 13 years ago and he chose to stay because life at the Slabs is free.

Facing a Decaying Mural and Fading Message, the Calexico-Mexicali Camaraderie Struggles to Survive

CALEXICO, Calif.–This bustling border town in Southern California’s Imperial Valley was quite different in the 1960s than it is today. People filing through the international port of entry merely had to state where they were born in order to enter the U.S.  Port vehicle traffic flowed in just two lanes rather than snaking through the 12 they have today.  The friendship between Calexico and its sister city, Mexicali, on the Mexican side was so casual, kids in both countries could share what could be called a bi-national game of baseball. But, more than a decade ago a solid brown metal fence was erected as part of Operation Gatekeeper, President Clinton’s answer to stem the tide of illegal immigration from Mexico into the U.S. between California and Texas. “When this fence went up, the ability to perceive and to sense this community, this trans-border community all of a sudden became harder because you couldn’t see across the fence anymore, and so both sides of the border expressed outrage,” Herrera said. Herrera, a history professor at the San Diego State University Calexico campus, was among a small group of citizens who felt saddled by the offending fence, but did not feel they had to settle on its appearance, so they set to work on making it more aesthetically appealing.