Annual BART Holiday Toy Drive to benefit hundreds of families in East County

Ladasha Wheeler, with her daughter, is enrolled in the CNA program at Opportunity Junction in Antioch. Photo courtesy of BART.

East Contra Costa Community Alliance chosen as this year’s beneficiary

Sometimes the people we rely on to care for loved ones need a helping hand themselves. At Opportunity Junction in Antioch future care providers are getting the assistance they need to launch careers as Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) through an innovative program that not only provides invaluable hands-on experience but also offers support in dealing with other life challenges. That helping hand can include coaching, connections to resources for housing and childcare, transportation assistance, and food support.

Opportunity Junction is one of a dozen charitable organizations that are part of the East Contra Costa Community Alliance. The Alliance is dedicated to strengthening resources available for those in need in eastern Contra Costa County, an area where finding adequate services has historically been a challenge. By coming together members of the Alliance share and leverage resources to better support disadvantaged populations. BART Board President Mark Foley has selected the Alliance as the beneficiary of this year’s annual BART Holiday Toy Drive.

Graduates of the CNA program at Opportunity Junction. Photo courtesy of BART.

This collaborative approach of the Alliance is paying off for 39-year-old Ladasha Wheeler who is enrolled in the CNA program at Opportunity Junction. Wheeler says she’s always wanted to work in the health care industry and the need has never been greater. “With the pandemic you heard the stories of how people couldn’t be there for their loved ones and how health care workers are overworked,” said Wheeler. “If you can step in to help with a sincere heart to do it why not?”

Wheeler has two adult children and is currently raising her seven-year-old daughter. She says she wouldn’t be able to pursue her career dream without Opportunity Junction. “If you can get the help that you need it’s really nice to have,” said Wheeler. “I’m a proud person but when it comes to donations you never know when you might eventually be on the receiving end.”

“Working together with our partners, we can provide the comprehensive services our residents need,” says Opportunity Junction CEO Alissa Friedman. “That CNA program is itself a partnership with Mt. Diablo Adult Education and Empowered Aging.”

33-year-old Natalee Pletcher is also a mother of three who is in the nursing program. Pletcher says she wouldn’t be able to pursue her goal of becoming a CNA and then a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) without the support of Opportunity Junction.

“The program has really given me not only help with tuition but help with courage because they’ve been there,” she said. “They’re really there for you if you’re struggling with something financially, mentally, or otherwise.”

Pletcher says the BART Holiday Toy Drive will make a big difference for hundreds of families including hers.

“It’s been very difficult for my family to get caught up with COVID. It’s set us back a lot so having this toy drive will really help my kids have a great Christmas,” she added.

The East Contra Costa Community Alliance includes the following non-profit groups that work together to offer a variety of support services:

  • Opportunity Junction– Helps motivated job seekers develop the skills and confidence to launch careers.
  • Monument Impact– Building skills, resources, and power within immigrant, refugee, and low-income communities.
  • Loaves and Fishes– Provides community-based food programs and partner services focused on basic needs.
  • Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA)– Advocates for abused and neglected youth in foster care.
  • DreamCatchers EmpowermentNetwork – Empowers youth and adults with limitations with assessments, job preparation, placement, and coaching.
  • SparkPoint– Focuses on financial stability including managing credit, increasing income, and building assets.
  • Village Community Resource Center– Family-focused support including after-school programs, mental health service, and parent support.
  • Winter Nights Family Shelter– Provides safe shelter for families and assistance to break the cycle of homelessness.
  • Counseling Options and Parent Education (COPE)– Strengthens family relationships through counseling options and parent education programs.
  • Contra Costa Senior Legal Services – Protecting the rights of seniors with a focus on keeping clients healthy and independent.
  • People Who Care Children Association– Free mental health counseling and enrichment opportunities ranging from job training to life skills.
  • Brighter Beginnings– Supports healthy births and development by partnering with parents. Assists young parents and expecting parents.

The collaboration between the charities has been especially valuable in the last year in the face of the global pandemic. Members of the alliance are sharing technical help and advice as well as learning lessons from one another as they offer support services to the community during a challenging time.

“We know what one another does so we can refer to one another more easily and it expands the resources we have for our own clients,” said SparkPoint Contra Costa Director Betty Geishirt Cantrell. “We really supported each other during the pandemic. We all had to move to remote services. We asked each other, ‘how are you doing remote services, what platforms are you using, which one works best’ all of that.”

“Connecting resources for a family who is in crisis is easier when we have partners who value each other’s services”, said C.O.P.E. Family Support Center’s Founder Cathy Botello.

The spirit of partnership is making a difference in the lives of thousands of families in Eastern Contra Costa County.

“Virtual was a factor last year for sure. Most of our classes are in Spanish and that’s a population that often falls into the digital divide,” said Monument Impact Executive Director Debra Ballinger. “We’re partnering with Pittsburg Unified to accommodate more people, teaching basics like how to use a Chromebook. Also, people were so panicked about job loss. It was sudden and immediate for people. We found that we had to find different ways to help to keep people in their homes.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP: If you’d like to join BART employees in helping the non-profits that are part of the East Contra Costa Community Alliance at the holidays you can visit www.ecccalliance.org. The site includes links to all 12 members of the Alliance.

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Ladasha Wheeler and daughter


OJ CNA grads


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