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By Jordan Dennen

“BCM is not a program to me, it’s family. Period.”

BCM parent Lea Martinez and her family have endured enormous tragedy over the past several years. Lea lost her dad in 2014 and her husband in 2016. In the midst of that, she also became the guardian for her two young grandsons. In 2017, Lea’s son Austin was in a bike accident and during treatment he experienced a loss of oxygen to his brain. Lea spent the next nine months by Austin’s side in the hospital and in rehab as he dealt with multiple surgeries, paralysis, and loss of speech. When Austin finally returned home wheelchair-bound in 2018, Lea became his full time caretaker. In 2019, Lea lost her oldest daughter, who was only 26 years old and the mother of Lea’s grandsons. In early 2020, Lea’s mother began treatment for cancer and Lea took on the responsibility of managing her appointments and care.

During these years of incredible hardship for Lea and her family, two of Lea’s six children as well as her two grandsons attended BCM. Among the four of them, they have experienced nearly all of BCM’s programs! From receiving academic support in Kidsmart and CREATE Studios, to growing spiritually and building community in Streetworkz, LiT, and Bible Club, to the Robotics teams and various summer programming, the Martinez kids have become beloved participants in all of BCM’s programs.

Lea knows that God placed BCM in her family’s life in perfect timing. She remembers years ago, before the death of her father, asking God for a new spiritual community. Sure enough, God led her to a church and to BCM, two communities that would be her lifeline through the storm that was to come. “It just blows me away when I think about how God provided for us,” Lea shared. “The relationships, and everything that BCM has been for us, I look at it and it awes me. It was absolutely ordained by God.”

Lea, who admits she is a “grizzly bear” when it comes to protecting and caring for her kids, was hesitant to trust any program with her children. It was Austin’s 3rd grade teacher, who volunteered with BCM at the time, that suggested Lea look into BCM. As skeptical as she was, Lea trusted this teacher and knew she genuinely cared for her kids. So, she decided to give BCM a chance. Lea wasn’t disappointed. “I was met with fantastic people and could see how much they really cared. They recognized my kids were special and it was an instant community.” Lea took comfort in the ways she saw BCM impacting her family. Her children and grandchildren “latched on” to BCM’s staff and volunteers and built real relationships.

"It takes really special people to see a kid hurting and not give up on them—to know that how they act isn’t coming from an awful place but from a hurt place,” Lea says.

Streetworkz and LiT staff connected with Austin and Lea’s daughter Carmella, and truly saw their unique personalities and needs. When Lea’s grandsons were old enough, they entered KidSmart and found similar support and love from the staff and volunteers there.

"The biggest thing that sticks out to me about BCM is how God’s love shows up there. In a world that so constantly changes, BCM is like a little island, a village of God’s love. It’s honestly hallowed ground. BCM is different from any other program because it’s saturated in God’s love, and that love is tangible and visible. Everybody that serves at BCM is there because of their true commitment to show Christ and love kids. That’s hard to find. You can’t fake that! How could you go wrong when you start the recipe with God’s love?"

Lea was so impressed at how deeply the adults at BCM cared for her children. “My kids would come home and tell me stories of the volunteers and staff and tell me what they liked about them. I could tell they were really connecting to these people and also that my kids were being loved for who they were. All these relationships just kept evolving and were so genuine.” Lea came to rely on the program managers to offer emotional support for her kids when things were hard, handle behavioral issues, and provide academic support. As relationships grew, several BCM staff and volunteers became like aunts and uncles to the kids. Lea found she could partner with them as she parented, and truly considers them family. She says, “I love that my kids are experiencing what it feels like to have a village around them and seeing all these people coming to BCM from different places and building relationships.”

When asked what BCM means to her, Lea couldn’t help but respond, sometimes through tears, with overwhelming gratitude.

"BCM hasn’t just impacted my kids, it’s impacted me. BCM is my extended family.

Throughout everything in my life in the past seven years, every step of the way, BCM has been a constant support. I wouldn’t have been able to weather this storm had it not been for all the ways BCM loved on my family!

Every staff person and volunteer that knew my family, and even some that didn’t, were so willing to do whatever they could to help: visiting me almost every day in the hospital, bringing meals, picking up my kids and taking them to school, financial support, sending cards and words of encouragement, and so much prayer. I felt prayed for every moment, and it was angels surrounding us. I’m crying just remembering...I get pulled right back into that time and how blessed I was. God showed so much favor in the midst of a horrendous storm. I can count the blessings that came hand in hand with that storm. This community has been an absolute abundance of support for us. It’s never failed. BCM is absolutely Godsent."

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When I was in high school, I had friends who tutored out of their apartments with the O’Keefe Family Center where I was introduced to BCM as a partner organization. My family started to volunteer with VBS and Bible Clubs because the kids we were tutoring would attend Bible Club. After finishing college, I joined BCM as a VBS volunteer, then interned at VBS, worked in development and eventually ended up directing and developing Leaders in Training (LiT), the new high school program.

Hiking during a LiT Retreat

One of my favorite memories during my time at BCM was getting to see LiT students connect with one another on one of our weekend retreats. Even when it was difficult, students chose to share their experiences of hurt and ways they wanted

to see God at work in their lives. It was hard to hear the ways our students were hurting or felt like God wasn’t listening, but a couple of our students pointed out that God was at work through LiT and was able to use difficulties to help us grow. They initiated a time of affirming one another and the whole team. It was a special and encouraging time for the group.

Recently, I’ve been seeing God at work through LiT students and their desire to engage with difficult topics. Before COVID, students asked to learn about self care, and it's been incredible to see them return to this topic and encourage one another during this pandemic. Even as parents lost work and students experienced significant loss and change as schools closed, students requested to learn about the Black Lives Matter movement, mass incarceration and racism. In navigating cultural differences between students and volunteers in the past, the LiT community has been able to provide safe spaces for students to process and acknowledge their experiences of racism. Through listening to volunteer perspectives and making space to share their own, our students have helped the program acknowledge the real hurt and trauma racism has caused. This has helped deepen relationships at LiT and has challenged our group to learn more about systemic racism and actively work towards a goal of anti-racism.

Through all of these conversations and challenges, our students have continued to support and affirm one another, as well as myself and their volunteers. On days when it’s been easy to be discouraged, our students have pointed out ways God is present in LiT and in their relationships and growth. In all of the ups and downs, it’s been such a blessing to be a part of building this community with volunteers and students. They’ve made affirming and listening to one another a value for themselves, and seeing our students model this love and care gives me a lot of hope for what God will do next.

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My introduction to BCM was during my senior year of college. I spent my spring break in East Palo Alto volunteering at BCM alongside a group of classmates. I truly had no idea that this one week had anything to do with my future, but by the time I graduated from college I had applied for and accepted a role as a Fellow at BCM. After the Fellowship, I joined BCM’s staff as the Program Manager for Streetworkz, the middle school spiritual program. Within that first year, my students and the beautiful EPA community had convinced me that I had found my new home.

EPA Fellows Yosemite retreat

God has done so much in my life through my time at BCM. Some of the things that I now consider my core values and passions began as seeds that were planted and watered at BCM: a commitment to social justice and taking action against systemic racism, education inequality, mass incarceration and harmful immigration policies. While it is overwhelming and heartbreaking to look at our communities and recognize the enormity of the world's brokenness, I’m grateful for the ways God has allowed me to learn how to pursue change. My sheltered, privileged, sanitized faith was forced to transform into a kind of faith that can face the real world and choose to take action in the midst of injustice.

I often have to remind myself that it’s not my job to worry about the results; it’s my job to love my students and trust God with the rest. But every once in a while I am given the gift of seeing results. During a particularly difficult time in her life, one of my students came to me to share her frustrations with some friends at school. Rosie* was upset that her friends were gossiping about her. She vented about the situation for several minutes and then let out a big sigh before saying, “I guess I shouldn’t want bad things for them. I should just let it go instead of getting revenge. Like how we talked about at know, forgiveness and being like Jesus.” Quite honestly, I was shocked! I was not expecting that level of self-reflection. I knew Rosie was dealing with a lot, and would not have blamed her for being angry or bitter towards her friends. Instead, I got a glimpse into what God was doing in her heart. And apparently she was actually paying attention at Streetworkz!

At the beach with Streetworkz

I have so many memories with students and staff at BCM. There are the fun events, the exciting moments in students’ lives, the silly games we get to play. But some of my favorite times with students are seemingly mundane ones. Over the years, I’ve spent many hours driving students to and from program or picking them up from school. Those drives were such sweet (and loud!) moments of everyday life and conversation. Students would jump in the car and tell me funny stories about school. I’d listen to them encourage each other in one sentence and teasingly insult one another in the next. Once a group of students said they wanted to buy a car for a homeless man that we passed on the street. And then 30 seconds later they were complaining about how much they hated their teacher. It was like a front row seat to the spectrum of humanity’s capacity for both generosity and selfishness, love and hate. All in the backseat of a minivan.

I think that’s one reason middle schoolers are awesome. As adults I think we often convince ourselves that we’ve matured beyond that awkward phase of insecurity, uncertainty, selfishness and silliness. But my students help me remember that none of us knows what’s going on, and yet we all have enormous capacity to love one another, if we let Jesus show us how.

*name changed

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