Learning link

Local nonprofit supplements educational needs for struggling students

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/16/2012

When the nonprofit organization Neighbors Acting Together to Help All (NATHA) was first created in 1991, it was a small neighborhood watch group tucked away in a residential section of Northwest Pasadena, near the Altadena border.

Over the years, it has transformed into a critical support network for students and families from all over Greater Pasadena, from San Gabriel to La Canada Flintridge.

Now the grassroots agency is partnering with other local community organizations, as well as most charter, private and public schools, to serve an area of about 1,900 homes with afterschool and summer programs for kindergarteners to high school students, offering programs Monday through Friday with occasional activities on the weekends.

"NATHA was created specifically to give an opportunity to all children, but especially children who may not be exposed to different opportunities, to travel or go on field trips, or be exposed to different things they may not have if they weren't participating in a program," said program coordinator Jalila Walker.

NATHA's programs, designed to supplement what they're learning in school, include: the Lemonade Brigade, an entrepreneurial business created by the Youth Leadership Group that sells lemonade at community events and reinvests the profits back into the organization; the Wagon Tails program, in which kids read to dogs to help build their reading confidence; tennis instruction with the company iTennis; and fitness activities with a personal trainer.

This year, students in the organization's anti-drug and alcohol coalition are planning to expand the Web series they created, which so far is composed of three episodes that the coalition wrote, filmed, acted in and edited with financial support and resources donated by OnWeb Television.

For all the organization's strong ties to the community and partnerships with various schools, however, NATHA remains somewhat under the radar, and that is no accident.

"We're really in the trenches," said Celestine Walker, NATHA's executive director. "We're at the grassroots level, and we really want to make sure that we're providing the services that are needed, so our focus is there as opposed to advertising our accomplishments all over town."

She added that they spend more time trying to interface with young people and their families to make their community better and level the playing field.

"We can't look outward as much, because we don't want to miss a beat here by being more external," she said. "It's also really complicated out there and highly political. We don't want to be derailed from what our passion and purpose truly is and why we're here, and that's the families and people in our community. We're very invested here."

For those involved with NATHA, that sentiment is exactly what makes the organization so special.

"What struck me most about the organization was that the people involved seemed to be genuinely interested in waht they were doing," said Colin Burton, a former Weekly contributor who tutored at NATHA in summer 2001. "When I took the job, I assumed that everyone was somewhat interested in the field of work but mostly in it for a paycheck, as I was at first. But by the end of the summer, it was obvious that the staff genuinely cared about supporting and enriching their community, and the sentiment was infectious. By the end, I found myself doing things above and beyond what I was paid for, simply for the satisfaction of knowing that I had helped in some way."

NATHA is funded by private donations, LA County's Community Development Commission (CDC) and grants, such as the federal Department of Health and Human Services' Drug Free Communities Grant. Jalila Walker said she's not worried about the end of redevelopment funding.

"I don't think it will affect NATHA in a negative way," she said. "We've been able to survive here for a long period of time. A lot of our resources come from our parents and community partners who support what we do, and so that's how we really survive. It's about the commitment of our community partners and the parents and people who work here still willing to make it work."

In the future, Walker would like to see NATHA expand its services to include resources for young adults who have graduated from high school and are either looking for a job or applying to colleges.

"I think young people who are fresh out of high school, until they are about 24 years old, need a place to go where they can learn skills, such as writing resumes and cover letters," she said, " as well as find out what other options they have, like internships or externships or volunteering somewhere. Because even if they can't get a job, there are still opportunities where they can get the skills they need to succeed."

NATHA's staff is actively working toward realizing that goal of expanding the organization to include those kinds of programs.

"We appreciate those who remember that we're here and come by to offer their services," said Walker. "That's what it's about, taking care of each other and making sure that people are successful in society."

To learn more about NATHA, call (626) 794-5889 or visit natha.org.