Stars Align to Prepare Kids for the Future

Photo by Giancarlo Diaz

By Jonathan Williams
The Review

Stars, a Pasadena-based nonprofit organization founded in 2001, has helped hundreds of
underserved children from the ages of 5 to 18 to prepare them for their educational futures.
The organization offers students community-based programs, such as tutoring,
mentoring, summer enrichment, college assistance and counseling, and classes for
social skills along with parenting.

The nonprofit provides more than 9,000 hours of tutoring and mentoring each year to
more than 200 students and their families, achieving a 99% high school graduation rate.
It also often runs community-based programs at after-school sites.
Stars also offers a variety of services dedicated to helping the community in
Pasadena, such as wellness fairs and workshops. In celebration of Mental Health
Awareness Month in May, it hosted workshops that were made possible by a recent
grant they received.

“I work with a lot of students who are socially misunderstood,” said Maria Sosa, a
Stars intern who is working toward her master’s degree in social work. “I think Stars is
doing a wonderful job to try and break that stigma of mental health. It gives our youth a
space to speak their feelings and be vulnerable, which is very important.”
She said the pandemic caused a significant gap in social development for many of
today’s youth who were forced to experience two crucial academic years learning
through virtual platforms, missing out on the typical experiences of in-person learning.
Sosa can relate.

“I had a hard time when I was younger,” she said. “I grew up in a Mexican household.
We didn’t believe in mental health. I had to figure out everything myself. It’s rewarding
for me to be able to help those families through that process.”
Janet Wilson, who began volunteering with Stars nearly a decade ago, shared the
same sentiments.

“I want to help vulnerable people,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Amherst College and a master’s in social
work from USC, is currently the counseling program coordinator at Stars. As a social
worker, she said she has a passion for the work she does, highlighting the dozens of
families she gets to help daily.

In addition to the academic assistance the students receive, Stars also provides food
to its “community of families” it serves on Tuesdays. About 20 to 25 families receive
fresh produce, protein and dairy on a regular basis. During a recent day when food was
distributed, family members lamented how the cost of food has risen dramatically.
“This experience [with Stars] has helped me and my family,” said Leobarda Alonso, a
single mother who has struggled with food insecurity.

Hazel Perera, the chair of Stars’ board of directors, who graduated from Maranatha
High School and then Westmont College, said she has “a soft spot for how to raise
kids,” noting that her mother had “sacrificed to put food on the table.”

She added that it is “very satisfying to be part of a community that’s all working toward
the same mission. It’s hard to find out there in the world, outside of doing something like
this. I see it as a privilege more than anything — that I get to be a part of this amazing
organization. Anything I can do to help, sign me up!”

Photo courtesy Stars

Parera added that hiring Stars’ executive director, Matumaini Taylor, last year was
critical to the organization’s continued success.

Prior to joining Stars, Taylor was the director of high school and college age outreach
at Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, bringing 20 years of experience spanning
work in ministry, nonprofits and public administration.

She said her journey has led her to work with young people, feeling a sense of
obligation and emphasizing the importance of service work.

“I speak of this opportunity to serve at Stars as an alignment of sorts,” Taylor said.
“These various components of my life that I couldn’t have planned if I tried. Yet there’s a
sense of convergence coming here for me. There was a saying I always heard in
church: ‘Service is the price you pay for the space you occupy.’”

At its core, Stars’ shining achievement is exemplified through the volunteers and
employees, who play key roles in the tutoring, mentoring and wellness of the students.
“I hope to inspire young people to see community as value, creating and maintaining
a safety net for our society … the life of the heart is where life really shines,” said Adán
Williams, a 1978 graduate of Blair High School who has served as Stars’ director of
wellness and mentoring initiatives. “My family has always been engaged. I feel like
service is what makes life meaningful.”