by Brooke Grasso
photography by Michael Savall
Bins of kale, broccoli, cilantro and radishes are stacked six shelves high in a small sky-blue shed covered in hand painted scarecrows and angels. The freshly picked produce stored inside the wood panelled walls of Uncommon Good’s walk-in refrigerator helps feed hungry families. This organic food, grown by local farmers, is only one of the extensive community serving programs that Uncommon Good, a Claremont based nonprofit, employs to fight the intergenerational poverty cycle. “Once someone in the family is in, the whole family benefits. There is something for everyone,” says Carlos Carrillo, director of educational programs at Uncommon Good.
The nonprofit began in 2000 when founder and lawyer Nancy Mintie saw the demand to help educate children and provide services to low-income families in the Pomona Valley. This type of project was not out of context for Mintie, as she also founded The Inner City Law Center in downtown Los Angeles to provide legal services for low-income and poor families. Her extensive background in helping families who needed assistance led her to creating Uncommon Good, which now serves more than 300 families. “In order to create sustainable change and get families out of poverty, what we need to do is provide children with an education so they can go to college, get good jobs and become productive, contributing adults,” says Nancy Dufford, coordinator of Uncommon Good’s Connect to College program.
To match up to Mintie’s do-good attitude, Uncommon Good required a building that “honors the tone of the community,” Dufford says, as she points to the wall inside their adobe-style building to Native American paintings of the Tongva Tribe, which occupied the land centuries before Uncommon Good. Mintie and her dedicated staff help families inside this 100 percent self sustained, unique structure that sits at 435 Berkeley Ave., nestled just north of the Claremont School of Theology, and just south of the parking lot for the Rancho Santa Anita Botanical Gardens. The building was constructed by stacking sand bags full of earth and cement, while the roof is made of mud balls pressed on removable metal arches by hundreds of local volunteers, including members of the local Tongva Tribe, children, and even players from the University of Redlands football team. The building boasts a zero carbon footprint and is equipped with a self-ventilating system and built in skylights. With a cost of roughly $1 million, most of the funding for the building came from a clean air grant resulting from an oil company’s legal settlement. “Our DNA is in that building,” Carrillo says proudly. Keeping nature in mind, the building features compasses on the lobby floor that align with the sunlight during summer and winter solstice.
Inside their Whole Earth Building, Uncommon Good promotes healthy organic foods, supports first generation efforts and employs local low-income families. In the center of the naturally lit lobby sit two tables, piled high with fresh, organic fruit and vegetables for sale. The food that families choose from helps employ local farmers. Six family farms are run by the parents of students in the Connect to College program, a mentoring and tutoring program for low income, high achieving students who have been hired full time. There are also community farms, with the largest being in Chino. Temple Beth Israel and Claremont Presbyterian also give land free of cost to cultivate, and Uncommon Good pays for the water and other farming expenses. The church gardens are taken care of each early morning by three farmers employed by Uncommon Good. When harvesting, the farmers follow Native American patterns by taking the moon, sunlight and water into account. “They are very in touch with the soil,” he says of Miguel, a farmer. “He can feel the energy of the soil when he’s harvesting,” Carrillo says as he picks a piece of broccoli from the bush and tosses it into his mouth.
Uncommon Good operates mostly from foundational grants, allowing it to continue serving the diverse community. “We want to be free to achieve the goal of breaking the cycle of poverty for everyone,” Carrillo says, as he walks through rows of growing beets, green onions, broccoli and kale. The farm’s goal is to help families by providing them jobs and healthy eating alternatives. “In 2008, a lot of our families were losing their jobs, and our goal is to inspire first generation students to go to college. When the parents are unemployed, that hurts the students, so we wanted to help them,” says Carrillo. In 2008, nearly 40 percent of their families were unemployed but had some type of farming experience from their native countries. Uncommon Good executives could not ignore the opportunity to employ local families, and jumped at the idea by holding an interest meeting. Almost 60 families attended.
When mature, half of the food is given to the families of students involved in the Student Connect to College Program, and the other half is sold inside the lobby to help fund other programs. A major customer is the Claremont Colleges, which stop by once a week to purchase vegetables for their dining halls. Since the healthy, organic food is not the typical cuisine for many families, Uncommon Good makes sure to give them recipes and tips for how to cook the somewhat foreign food. Carrillo says just giving them the food is not enough, so they hold health education, cooking and diabetes classes so “they can get our vegetables and actually eat them.” There are also cook books and conveniently cut out recipes sitting in the front office near the food for sale. “We want to teach healthy habits and wellness,” Carrillo says. “So we need to provide organic, pesticide free vegetables and then teach them how to cook them.” Carrillo takes pride in the organic quality of their products. No pesticides are used in their soil, not even organic pesticides; they make their own compost. He says he is not the only one who can tell a difference in their food. “An earth healer was able to feel a difference in the energy between store bought vegetables and our vegetables.”
The organization’s commitment to the community is visible through the opportunities it offers residents and specifically their children. High-achieving students in low-income families are given the opportunity to have a mentor, who helps them envision themselves in college and pushes them to stay on track with schoolwork through the Connect to College Program. “Our goal is to encourage these students to do well in school so they can go to college and break the cycle of poverty,” Dufford says. University of La Verne students help make a difference in some of the students’ lives by providing a support system, building friendships and showing them what life on a college campus is like. Throughout the years, students in professor Carolyn Cockrell’s ULV community service class have been mentors and tutors for the Connect to College program. Dufford has often seen students stay in the program even after the required community service is fulfilled. La Verne alumnus Joseph Yanez is one such person who continues to help mentees reach their goals. Yanez started as a student tutor fall 2015 and has since evolved into a mentor. “Uncommon Good matched me with a student I was able to help get through the AP exam, since I was a math major,” Yanez remembers fondly. In the end, his student, Rogelio Duran Flores, earned a five out of five on the AP calculus test. Even now that Yanez has graduated, he has stayed by the side of his mentee, who is now a Ganesha High School senior applying to college. Their bond moved far beyond a community service class and prompted Duran Flores to write his personal statement about his experience with Yanez.
Uncommon Good comes in at a crucial time when most of their parents are working and unable to give students the full assistance they need to learn about college opportunities. “Most of the children are first generation students with immigrant parents who don’t really know how to provide their students with what they need to know on how to get to college,” Dufford says. “It’s hard for all of us to know what you need to get to college, but especially for parents who didn’t grow up in this country or are working a lot and have a lot on their plate.” Typically, the program is for fourth through eighth grade students, and if students want to continue the program after eighth grade, they write an essay to participate in Uncommon Good’s High School Scholars Program. The program provides mentors, tutors and college counseling to expose them to college campuses. Otherwise, they might not normally have that experience.
Beyond the scope of the farming program and mentoring, Uncommon Good offers a multitude of other programs focused on doing the community good. Every other Thursday, a group of students, formally named the Green Team, farms on the rooftop garden at Pomona College. “Our partnerships with the Claremont Colleges and University of La Verne make our work possible,” Dufford smiles. Uncommon Good also provides debt relief for doctors and attorneys who are willing to work in low-income areas. Above all, the organization prides itself on not only growing organic vegetables, but cultivating healthy relationships and experiences to better the future of the diverse community.
“People said to us this wouldn’t happen in this area,” Carrillo says as he rolls his eyes. “We take care of the earth, and if you take care of the earth, the harvest will bless you.”