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Volunteers Pick Up Where School Funding Drops Off

Local Education Foundation to Mountain Area: “Your Kids Are Awesome!”

OAKHURST – Creative juices were flowing as 15 excited middle school kids rolled baseball-size mounds of clay in their warm hands, as a prelude to sculpting.

So began the newest offering from local nonprofit organization, the Bass Lake Education Foundation (BLEF). Young artists were on hand for the first day of a 6 week workshop, Introduction to Ceramics, with art teacher and potter Connie Collins.Introduction to Ceramics is held on Tuesdays at Oak Creek Intermediate (OCI) from 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. through December 10. The materials fee is $10 per student and the rest is paid for by BLEF. Scholarships are available for all programs.

Collins is one of a few mountain area artists tapped to lead programs organized by BLEF, a group whose primary mission is to provide resources for programs that are no longer funded through the schools.

Kriszti Mendonca BLEF FounderKriszti Mendonca started BLEF in 2009 after budget cuts began to decimate school programs.

“It was becoming clear that the schools could no longer continue to provide the basic curriculum that is needed for a well rounded education,” Mendonca recalls.

Back then, the mother-of-two attended a Bass Lake Unified School District (BLUSD) meeting about potential school closures, the nearby Wawona Education Foundation presented BLUSD with a $25,000 check to offset costs at Wawona Elementary School in Yosemite. Mendonca took note.

“That made me wonder why the kids in the other schools in the district didn’t have an education foundation of their own,” says the nonprofit’s founder.

Chenoa Johnson and Maya MendoncaTo date, volunteer-run BLEF has fostered science, art and computer clubs aimed at mountain area youth ages K-12. The popular clubs, low and no-cost, are facilitated by professionals with help from parent volunteers and are open to students from all schools. For Mendonca, bringing far-flung kids with similar interests together is part of the fun.

“I’m happy about the number of kids we have reached, and that our programs are able to bring different schools and age groups together,” says Mendonca, a full-time Web Developer. “Our pilot programming workshop this past summer brought together students from Wasuma, OCI, YHS and the home school community.”

BLEF is running two programs currently with a third set to begin soon. In addition to middle school ceramics on Tuesday, elementary school students are enjoying the second year of Art Club, at Oakhurst Elementary School (OES) on Monday afternoons. Plans are underway for a two-day ceramic mask workshop for high school age artists, and Science Club is expected to return for its third year at OCI in January.

Erin Capuchino is a full time marketing executive who sits on the board of BLEF, and ran for Oakhurst Honorary Mayor in 2011, raising thousands in the process. Like others who work in nonprofit, Capuchino knows the ups and downs of labor for love.

“Being a volunteer can be hard,” says the mother of three, “especially with a small group like ours, because we are all so involved with our kids but want to be there for the other kids we reach out to.”

Capuchino reminds the community that BLEF is branching out and can use support.

“The current track that BLEF is on is amazing and has grown so much but we need more funds,” says Capuchino. “As a Spring Valley parent, I want to find ways to bring BLEF to Spring Valley and other schools. We need more hands and more voices, donations are great, but our small board could really use more help.”

BLEF founder Mendonca agrees on all counts.

BLEF-by Thomas Lazar“We would love to have more schools and kids involved in our programs and our plan is to reach out further,” adds Mendonca, who says they are developing a hands-on mobile science lab for schools and festivals.

“We would like to continue and enhance our programs,” Mendonca says, “and we plan additional computer science workshops this summer. We’re thinking about Introduction to Animation and other classes for younger kids.”

Mendonca adds that the community, school district, parents and teachers have been instrumental in growing the young organization. In particular, she’s grateful to Sierra Tel, PG&E and the Larry Jeffries family for support. Still, more help is needed.

“We’ve hit upon a successful formula of partnering with local teachers and artists, professionals in their fields, to facilitate our programs,” Mendonca explains, “and we need financial support. You can make a tax deductible donation on our website and 100% of funds raised go to our programs.”

A frequent volunteer, having tested laws of motion with children at mountain schools and events, BLEF’s originator has one last thing she wants parents to know.

“”Your kids are awesome,” Mendonca reports.


Kellie Flanagan is on the BLEF Board.

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