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Creating Educated Communities Written By Kimberly Ewertz W hat is in a name? In the case of Cal-SOAP, California Student Opportunity and Access Program, it’s the message behind the name that matters. “Creating educated communities, one underrepresented student at a time,” is Cal-SOAP’s mission statement. That mission began almost 40 years ago, under the administration of The California Student Aid Commission (CSAC). “They administer all the Cal-Grants in the state of California to college students,” Erin Gemar, Project Director, South County Cal-SOAP, said. “Cal-SOAP’s mission was to make college available for every Californian, and provide access on how to get there.” Today, the program has expanded beyond CSAC’s expectations. “We’re at twenty-five schools now; we are in the four districts, but we’re serving six districts, because we do financial aid in Soledad and Gonzalez Unified,” Gemar said. But what does Cal-SOAP mean to the staff? “We believe that every person who walks through the doors of our offices leaves more educated than when they arrived,” Gemar said. For Eric Martin, Tutor Coordinator, Cal-SOAP represents assurance that all people have access to a college education. Coordinator of Financial Aid and Scholarships, Robert Trout, wants all students to understand that Cal-SOAP 88 provides a place to go for their college needs. “College is something that you can reach,” Trout said. When did Cal-SOAP make its way to Gilroy? In 2000, San Jose applied for an extension grant that would ensure the establishment of the Cal-SOAP program at Gilroy High School, Mt. Madonna Continuation High School, South Valley Middle School, San Isidro, and Las Animas Elementary School. When things did not go as planned and the exten- sion grant was jeopardized, then Gilroy Superintendent Edwin Diaz worked out the necessary details and requirements that allowed the grant money to remain in Gilroy. By 2003 he had successfully completed his mission. At that time, Gemar left her position as Academic Coordinator at Gilroy High (Cal-SOAP headquarters) to take on the role of Project Director. Cal-SOAP Tutor Lloselin Rodriguez’s message is simple: “Education is KEY.” Each year, approximately five hundred high school seniors receive one-on-one counseling from Cal-SOAP, and more than 94 percent of these students go on to college—proof of the program’s effective- ness in helping students of every back- ground and financial situation to consider college as an option. What is the secret behind the program’s success? The answer is dedication. “Even before I knew what an outreach program was, it’s how I was raised to believe, and live. Share, care, and teach,” GILROY • MORGAN HILL • SAN MARTIN SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2016 Gemar said. “Through Cal-SOAP, I have limitless opportunities to donate my personal time and financial resources for students, and for the program.” For Gemar, a key component to the program is empowerment. “It’s not enough to help them fill out an application, or to help them complete a homework assignment,” Gemar said. “Our students learn how to fill out the application on their own, and understand the concepts within the homework, so they can do it on their own the next time around.” Nothing solidifies the effectiveness of the program more than success stories. Cal-SOAP alumnus, Manuel Aviña, is one of those. “College was always a dream that my parents wanted for me, but they didn’t have the resources or information to get me there,” Aviña said. “Without the help of Cal-SOAP, I would not have come out of UC San Diego debt free. This program really helps minorities, who statistically wouldn’t have made it to college, better their lives, and better the lives of their communities. Cal-SOAP invests in under- represented students like me, so we can later pay it forward to those that need it. Minorities are the big ‘movers and shak- ers’ because we’ve lived the struggle.”  A major component of Cal-SOAP’s resources for students has been the college scholarship program. College Futures Foundation, CFF, has provided Cal-SOAP $150,000 per year for scholarships to low-income students, for the past decade.