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EDUCATION

A Simple Pledge Enriches Students and Pushes Them Forward

July 28, 1999|KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a steamy summer day, 11-year-old Diana Ruiz and her friends were expertly paddling and sailing boats amid the yachts of Newport Bay.

The 33 pre-adolescents looked as if they had summered by the sea all their lives. Two years ago, most of them could barely dog paddle.

These children from a working-class neighborhood of Huntington Beach are being given an unusual boost through their school years by a Newport Beach couple who decided a lucrative stock option would best be spent on providing some preteens a chance at tutoring, swimming and sailing--enrichment activities long out of reach for the less affluent.

Driven to help give others a boost through life, executive Jack Shaw and community college professor Ellen Shockro created the El Viento Foundation two years ago. They started with a promise to all willing fourth-graders at Oak View Elementary School: Stick with sailing, after-school tutoring and weekend field trips from fourth grade through high school, and your community college tuition will be free.

It's too soon to know if Diana and her classmates will complete the program. But the children--and their parents--are already daring to dream things they never thought about two years ago.

"I know now that I can do anything," said Diana one recent morning after a rowing trip across Newport Bay. "I just don't know what I want to do yet."

Enthralled by the periodic table and science lessons, she has thought lately of becoming a chemical engineer.

Watching the water from a sliver of sandy beach, her mother seemed almost unwilling to believe that strangers are covering the cost of her daughter's sailing lessons. Estela Ruiz barely risks acknowledging the promised community college scholarship.

"We haven't talked much about it, but Diana wants to continue school," Ruiz said. "We are Jehovah's Witnesses, and I believe only God knows what will happen. But Diana knows that if she continues, there's a scholarship for her."

Already these children have traveled a tremendous physical and psychological journey.

They have learned to swim, first selling chocolates after school to purchase bathing suits from Target. Slowly, they are mastering the tricky rudder control and tacking of sabots--small wood and fiberglass sailboats. For some, the four-mile trek from their neighborhood to the bay was their first trip to the Pacific.

Oak View teachers who helped found El Viento have witnessed other encouraging changes. The children stand straighter, raise their hands more often in class and bring home better grades. They also use English more readily outside school, even in their Spanish-dominant neighborhood.

As the name suggests, El Viento stresses sailing as the gust of wind that can push disadvantaged children toward college. But there is plenty of other help steering them along.

They are to receive after-school tutoring when biology or other subjects baffle. They take Saturday swimming classes and school skills classes at Golden West College, attend educational field trips to the Long Beach aquarium and the Bolsa Chica wetlands, and participate in six weeks of sailing, kayaking and rowing camp in the summer.

The early success of the program has inspired Shockro and Shaw to try expanding to a second fourth-grade class. They have produced a brochure seeking contributions ($500 to sponsor one child for a year, $5,000 to sponsor a child for a decade, $20,000 to sponsor a class for a year, $200,000 to sponsor a class for a decade) that they are distributing to a large network of family, friends and business associates.

The ideal is an endowment of $2 million, which would generate enough interest to keep the program alive for years to come, Shaw said.

"If the program ends tomorrow, these children's lives will be forever changed," said fourth-grade teacher Elizabeth Garcia, who worked with the El Viento students when the program began. "Nothing will ever be the same."

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