Thankful for their privileges, local nonprofit looks to help others
Published in the June 14 – June 27, 2017 issue of Gilroy Life
By Melissa Hartman
Pamela McKenna found a group of young women at Pacific West Christian Academy in 2011 who were interested in taking part in a Bible study group allowing them to find a place to bond with other classmates at lunch time. That’s how One Heart To Another got its start.
Then, it wasn’t a thought for the group, Less Than Three, to move out of their environment.
However, McKenna and Leslie Carmichael, both on One Heart To Another’s board of directors, stopped working at Pacific West and the group continued in McKenna’s home. The “first generation” as McKenna lovingly calls her first group of “girls,” now in college, had moved on at the time into high school.
In 2015, three families at Christopher High School in Gilroy had lost a wife or children in a car accident. Some of the Less Than Three members were close with a girl who was a part of one of these families. Fueled with empathy, Less Than Three started a Christmas Angel project.
“It pushed me to think: ‘Let’s do more,’” McKenna said. Though putting in the paperwork to become a legitimate nonprofit was taxing, it was the members of Less Than Three who pushed it forward. Affectionately-named “Momma McKenna,” the girls’ heartening texts to keep going and secure the paperwork was what got the job done.
Now, the group is split into ninth/tenth grade and eleventh/twelfth grade. One of the first generation women, Kaitlin Benjamin, is a co-leader over the younger group and helps to run the meetings each week.
One Heart To Another is double-faceted — it’s one part support group with members dedicated to talking about God, and one part taking the capacity to be grateful for their privileges and turning that into something positive for those around them.
McKenna facilitates the weekly Tuesday night meetings for the older group of young women. They eat snacks and catch up on their lives, play a game and spend the last part of the meeting dissecting the message each game brings forward. The conclusion is an update of what’s going on with the organization. The message from each meeting is relevant to this generation of millennials, delving into issues such as valuing themselves beyond their image on social media.
At one of the recent meetings with the younger group of girls, Benjamin met with them at Gilroy’s First Street Coffee and discussed what it means to forgive yourself and others. “It was about being in a setting where you can be a part of the community and not judge each other, but be there for each other through that time,” she said.
Benjamin came back to help teach the younger group because of the lasting effect it had on her during middle school and high school. Her faith is what helped her to become a leader at South Valley Young Life, an organization dedicated to serving middle school, high school and college students. She is going to Spain in August with the group.
Now Benjamin finds satisfaction in being able to see young women who are substantially different from each other join in. “You are seeing all these girls from completely different backgrounds, and different families, interested in very different things,” she said. “But when they come to group, they come together.”
Even the students in the older group come from different backgrounds and attend different high schools, but they look forward to Tuesday nights.
Since October 2016, driven by strongly motivated young women, One Heart to Another has organized various projects for the Morgan Hill and Gilroy communities. It held a can drive at the Gilroy Nob Hill store and delivered 28 bags of groceries to families in need in collaboration with Community Solutions. In December, members held their first Christmas Angel project, raising $3,000 to help kids and their parents in need during the holiday season. By February, the members had enough funding from the year before to follow through with their “Cozy Heart” project, which allowed them to buy fleece blankets for the local women and children’s shelter La Isla Pacifica. In April, One Heart To Another put on an Easter egg hunt at a housing development for high-risk youth. Recently, the group’s 22 members came together to make hygiene kits for foster kids and public school children who are lacking the essentials of staying clean.
In September, One Heart to Another will hold a silent auction to fund the projects they want to accomplish in 2018.
Board secretary Carmichael said the success of the group’s projects rises from the ambition of the young women who are involved in One Hearth to Another. “I’ve watched them as they see the impact they are making for girls their age… it’s been amazing to watch because they started so fast,” she said.
Carmichael reflected back on the Nob Hill fundraiser and how the community supported this program when they found out about the cause. One woman was crying because she was so touched. She has loved her role to mentor, to encourage.
Carmichael is most impressed by members in the group who exceed without a reward the required community service hours at their high schools. “There is no carrot dangling in front of them. It’s just the empowerment to make a difference,” she said.
One Heart To Another has a Youth Advisory Committee that includes three young women from the eleventh/twelfth grade group. One member, Michelle Aguirre, explained how the committee has been planning for a Girls’ Night with at-risk teenagers in May. One Heart To Another will try to fill the void of funding that got cut from the low-income housing complex. Just as One Heart To Another meetings have a message, the Girls’ Night will be focused on inner beauty.
The One Heart To Another group gets a sense of empowerment from each other, member Lauren Verna said. “I wasn’t used to having a group of girls that just wanted to love on you … to have (this experience now) has been totally world-changing.”
“A lot of (these girls) don’t have a lot of opportunity because of the area and their home situations so we are trying to reach them. Right now is the time they can go down a bad path or a good path, so we want to show them which way is going to benefit them,” older group member Julia Vanni said.
The young women are most impacted by helping their direct community and remembering how some people can’t even afford the basics we take for granted. “There’s so many people out there that need help, and it hurts me so much …we have houses, and we eat as much as we want and we have cars,” Aguirre said. “I really want to go out there and make a difference for people as much as I can even if these problems can’t be solved worldwide.”
McKenna is grateful every day for the group of young women she mentors. “They think we bless them, but they bless us,” she said. “It’s neat to bond with young girls and watch them grow and reach out to others.”