By C. Jayden Smith
As a program that prides itself on teaching its participants about using creativity and being strong advocates, AIM High’s leaders had to carve an uncertain path to continue reaching young minds after the pandemic hit.
Formerly operating as Thrive Alive under the Community Outreach Alliance, the program has received a fresh start in recent months thanks to The Noble Path Foundation, and it is looking forward to continuing its resurgence with an upcoming summer series.
AIM High, an acronym advocacy, inspiration, and mentorship, has existed in practice since 2017. The program takes students through a seven-week experience that looks to prepare them for life ahead by encouraging them to have deep conversations and having leaders around the San Clemente community speak to them.
According to Teri Steel, the program’s executive director, a series of events led them to their partnership with The Noble Path Foundation.
In October 2018, Talega Life Church, the host for the COA and Thrive Alive program, closed its doors, as the program’s leaders decided they wanted their model to go in a different direction. With help from the San Clemente community, Thrive Alive operated at different locations before settling at the Baha’i Center.
COA’s Food Connection program also operated at the center and did well in serving people who needed food during the initial stages of the pandemic in 2020.
Needing to switch up Thrive Alive’s approach to best reach the 15 participants in their program, they created “Project Pandemic Override” that consisted of Zoom meetings while unable to meet in person.
That format worked for a period of time, as the Orange County Health Care Agency, San Clemente’s Wellness & Prevention Center, and other agencies contributed.
“As we moved through that year, teens started getting frustrated because there was nothing in person, and they were already doing Zoom classes online for school,” Steel said. “At the end of 2020 going into 2021, we were unable to sustain the funding for it as well. So, we had to let staff go.”
Steel further explained that staff was let go because the program’s sponsors and other nonprofits were scrambling to try to see how to survive that time.
Around August and September of last year, the program met with a local strategist, through which it became clear Thrive Alive would have to operate on its own because of necessary costs associated with top leadership and vetting volunteers through background checks.
Steel approached Cindy Juncal, founder of The Noble Path Foundation whom she got to know over the years through their time in the nonprofit community, about Thrive Alive’s uncertain future. Juncal proposed that her organization would fund the program and facility costs and help restore it to its former level.
The interaction was a “very exciting moment,” according to Steel.
“Of course, I was ecstatic, because we’ve been able to save a lot of kids in our community,” she said about the opportunity to move forward.
Steel worked with the agency OneOC to carry over the intellectual property that was owned by the fully trademarked Thrive Alive brand.
“We transitioned them all over to The Noble Path Foundation, and we were able then to not miss a beat with these kids,” she said. “Many of them have come through Thrive Alive, and they were very excited that they would be able to get together in person again.”
Through a grant from the Orange County Workforce Development Board, AIM High was able to bring back program alumni to work for them.
Such actions are intended to better the lives of the children who come through the system, as well as Friday night hangouts and Monday beach cleanups that give participants healthy environments in which to spend time.
The transition process was emotional for Steel, who helped create the initial system and was unsure of where they would go next. Support from local San Clemente organizations such as the San Clemente Rotary Club and the Junior Women’s Club was “incredible.”
“This community really supports these kids, and right now more than ever, I believe these kids need it,” said Steel.
She added that she didn’t believe the program would have survived if not for the efforts of Juncal and The Noble Path Foundation.
The summer series will start on June 15, when participants will learn about nutrition and wellness from The Noble Path Foundation itself. The following subjects include Teen Dating and Healthy Relationships; Physical and Emotional Stress Coping Skills; Self Esteem and Social Media; Life Lessons; Trending Drug Culture; and Leadership Development and Certification.
A hallmark of AIM High’s series includes changing leadership speakers from the previous one to the next. Don Juncal, president of the OBEY Clothing brand, will speak, giving the students the chance to hear from a key member of a popular apparel company.
By maintaining a social media presence and hosting events that introduce families and prospective participants, the program is able to continue spreading its message.
“Our hope is (that) they become confident in their own (leadership abilities by learning) with tools, (and) that if they’re struggling with mental health, or they’re leaning towards addiction, that they will see that they have the ability to reach out to somebody for help,” said Steel.
She also said that by teaching students how to cook for themselves, save money, and remember that they aren’t completely alone, AIM High can lead them down the right path toward pursuing an occupation or further education that sets them up for a fruitful life without the desire for drugs and alcohol.