Coming off the heels of UC Merced’s 2018 Homecoming last weekend, I am reminded of the promise that the university brings to this area.
A large crowd of that was full of eager-eyed prospective students, current students that were energized from free coffee, passionate staff members, and proud alumni, assembled at one of the UC’s courtyards to watch student group performances and to listen to the words of school and civic leaders.
Mayor Mike Murphy kicked things off by speaking of the need for students to stay and contribute to this area, and of the opportunity they have if they do make Merced their home. Charles Nies, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, followed up by stating that those who are a part of UC Merced are “building the future in the heart of California.”
As I skimmed the crowd of those high school students that can’t wait to attend college and start their adult future, I couldn’t help but wonder who was stirred by the message of wanting to build their future in the heart of California, and who we might see as future UC students in the years to come. What I did know for certain is that this message has already stirred the hearts of many youth in the valley; youth like Maggie.
This future starts with people like Magdalena (Maggie) Castaneda. Maggie’s story is a homegrown story and reflects the dream of the UC. Maggie grew up in the south side of Merced and that’s where she lives to this day. Her parents, originally from Mexico, chose to live in Merced after residing in downtown Los Angeles for several years, and loved the idea of Merced due to its peacefulness, friendliness, and quietness which reminded them of their home in Mexico. Her parents will to ensure that she and her sister had a good life.
Maggie is an alumna of many Merced schools, attending Pioneer, Sheehy, Tenaya, and Merced High. The University came into town when Maggie was twelve years old. She hadn’t yet considered the UC when she became a UC Scholar in middle school, but it gave her great exposure to university. Like many kids at that age, she had no idea where she wanted to attend college. She knew that she wanted to stay in the Valley. Considering the fact that she was first generation American and her parents had not attended college, as she pioneered a new chapter for her family by embarking on the college journey, she and her parents collectively decided that she should attend college that was close to home. To some eighteen year olds, there’s a negative stigma to staying close to home for college because it’s not as exciting or thrilling, but Maggie felt differently. While “I wanted to experience something different. I knew the UC would bring a lot of opportunities and growth for me and to our community.” Opportunities for Maggie came knocking.
After a successful four years in college and being a part of several groups like the Bobcat Martial Arts team, Maggie became the first in her family to not only graduate from college, but graduate from a UC. Her success at school and the connections she was able to make landed her a job at the UC in the Alumni Relations department where she works today.
If you’ve ever had a conversation with a leader in the community, you know that it’s their hope for UC students to stay in town after they’ve graduated, to get a job, and start their lives here, all the while contributing to the community. There’s already a community of people born and raised here who are doing just that. Maggie is just one of them. Outside of a degree and a job, the UC has deeper meaning to Maggie. To her the UC is, “Opportunity and hope. Hope for a better future not only for our city but for our people. There’s a lot of students in the Central Valley that don’t pursue higher education based on minimal resources or lack of knowledge. The UC system as a whole and UC Merced makes a difference in getting opportunities out there, showing them that they do have more than one path that they can forge.”
While her story is nowhere near being finished, it is a story that I hope resonates with many in Merced. Hollywood, novels, and the zeitgeist of the day create a stigma around small, country towns, that your future can only be lifted up by luck or chance. Not so in Merced. Merced is full of opportunity for those that work for it, just like Maggie’s parents. They worked hard to provide opportunities for her and her sister, and they’ve been successful. Now Maggie is working hard to build a strong future for herself and her family. Her dreams and goals are yet to be defined, but I know I will enjoy watching her build that future. To those kids in the Central Valley that don’t know what their dream is yet either, Maggie has a few words of hope for you:
“Take pride in where you come from and what you have. Despite what you lack, your future holds a plethora of opportunities and dreams that you can accomplish as long as you have the spirit and the will to move forward.”
That spirit is what the Central Valley is all about.
Published in The Merced County Times on October 5th, 2017.
Chances are, you’ve heard that Merced is “two hours away from everything” our Golden State has to offer. Skiing, sailing, wine tasting - if you can name it, we’re not too far away. The strange part about this well-known secret is just that - not many folks outside of our own community seem to know about it.
Prior to moving to this amazing Valley of ours, we lived in San Francisco, a revolving-door of transplants trying to make it in the ‘big city’. Once people found out that we moved from San Francisco to Merced, the question that often followed was, “Why Merced?”. Sincere questions demand thoughtful answers; I’ve elected to help address that oft-asked question by many of our coastal friends when inquiring about Merced and our neighboring communities.
While San Francisco is a great city to live in for a season, it quickly feels like it has an expiration date for those not born there. The city is a rotating door for those seeking new opportunities in a city scape, and does not provide a foundation for those who want to grow in life outside of their careers. In 2016, we realized that our time in San Francisco was coming to an end; many of our close friends had moved on, either back to their state of origin or surrounding suburbs and were entering different stages of their lives. We knew we wanted to move, but where? Where could we live that we could afford a home and have a high-quality of life? After some research, the answer was not the Bay Area; a sad truth for two people that were born and raised in Santa Clara County. However, this initial barrier presented a golden opportunity for us and we chose to take it.
So, why Merced? For starters, my husband, Aaron, is a graduate of the inaugural class of UC Merced. Similar to many outside of the community, the university was the initial reason we knew about Merced. I knew about his early days in Merced, where many members of the university and the community invested in him and gave him opportunity to succeed. Being from a large city, I had always wanted to make our home in a town with a strong sense of community and family values.
The line of thinking goes like this: one can put a down payment on a home that can be afforded, be close enough to enjoy sports events and seasonal activities without the fuss of traffic, and pick up incredible hobbies that are affordable and unique (hiking in the Sierras!). Most importantly to us, we wanted to live here because we knew we could get involved and make a difference in the community. It was a pleasant surprise when our community involvement became the highlight of day-to-day life, and the leading driver of our social calendar.
We saw Merced’s potential and wanted to be a part of the growth. If you have a desire to help in your community in the Valley, your voice will be heard; you can make an impact if you so choose to use it. If you live in a city like San Francisco, San Jose, or Oakland, it's rare that city leaders notice when you move in or move out. We factored all of these considerations and decided that Merced would be our new home.
Merced is a town where you can know the Mayor, the City Manager, the City Council Members, business owners, and other community leaders, if you so choose. It’s a place where you can start an club, join an organization, or benefit from the endless amount of town events put on by them. It’s a community where people can get to know you and care about how you’re doing - all you have to do is show up.
While we know that Merced is a place worth hanging your hat on, but the truth is, not many people are following our lead to move here. Those in our peer group still choose to live in larger cities in the Bay Area and southern California. That’s where we all need to be ambassadors for Merced, our county, and the Valley. The question and the challenge to this community is this: how do we make it a place where young people can stay after college and not leave to build their career? How can you as an individual, business leader, or community leader make this place the best place to start a family, career, or home?
My husband and I have been fortunate enough to keep our San Francisco jobs while living in Merced, but that is not a reality for everyone until jobs become more remote-based. Therefore, we need big business and more opportunities in town to attract talent from other California cities. It’s not an option if we want to compete with the ever-growing towns that surround our county. Big businesses bring many benefits, but this home of ours is also a good place to build your own opportunity. It’s evident in the many events and small businesses that are popping up, and those individuals that start their own opportunity can positively impact our community in a tremendous way. We must do all that we can to highlight what’s great about our community and attract business and people to come our way, because simply put, it really is a county on the rise.
“This is the greatest valley.” That’s what I thought every time I drove to Fresno, Merced, Modesto, and Lodi to visit family and friends. Leaving our home in Santa Clara Valley to drive to San Joaquin Valley on the weekends was always an occasion I eagerly anticipated throughout the week. I couldn’t wait to run and play in the cornfields, stroll in the small downtowns, and meet the locals who seemed to have a charm unlike the locals in the city I lived in just a short drive away.
That’s why I was excited to leave the shoebox (we lived in 400 square feet!) that my husband and I rented in San Francisco to buy a home in Merced in the fall of 2016. We wanted to live in a place where we could get involved and make an impact on the area around us, not a large city where nobody remembered our name. Since moving here, I have found ways to get involved through organized events or by simply seeing a need, rolling up my sleeves and getting to work. Most surprising about this move was the impact that this community had on me; the generosity and determination of those around my husband and me drew us in and inspired me to want to contribute more.
One of the reasons why we moved here was for the opportunity to get involved in the community and make an impact. I’ve lived throughout California and never felt that my prior places of residence afforded me the opportunity to make a difference. That’s why I couldn’t be more thrilled to start writing a column for the Times; it’s long been a dream of mine to write for a newspaper, and the Times, in particular, means a lot to me. This paper was a bright spot of Merced when my husband and I decided whether or not we should move here full-time. We picked up a copy at The Branding Iron and had great fun reading about the positive stories featuring influential locals, and about all of the events that take place in our area. That day we decided to move here and also get a subscription to the paper.
There aren't too many people in our peer group who have made the decision to move here like Aaron and I. But, there are a fair amount of Millennials from the Valley that are making a positive difference here. I’m constantly impressed by these young professionals, educators, and folks raising their children here. It’s easy to pick out the youth along the California coast, but there’s not enough coverage of the future leaders of the Valley. Therefore, my column will be all about the young movers and shakers of our town and county. The Valley, specifically, Merced is a great place to live and I hope that this column will highlight that. Other authors might point out that the Central Valley is not a place to invest in or live in, but I beg to differ. Much is happening here and our youth are driving the change.
Merced has been a fun place to live thus far. My husband and I have taken up sailing lessons through the Lake Yosemite Sailing Association, we bike Merced’s bike paths/streets, we frequent the Elks amazing Friday night dinners, we swam in the 23rd Street Pool throughout the summer, attended the Vista Nights out at Vista Ranch, have fixed up our charming 1950’s home, and have made connections with incredible people of all ages throughout the town. We primarily eat and shop in Merced to support our local town businesses, but we also have our favorite go-to’s in the surrounding towns.
Beyond local events, I enjoy gardening, writing, learning about local history (I was a volunteer docent in San Francisco for a historic home), reading about presidential history, skiing, wine tasting in Murphys, hiking, and spending time with my family. I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising/FIDM in 2009 and have spent seven great years (and counting) working for Gap Inc.
I never knew my life would lead me to Merced, but I’m so glad it did. I look forward to getting to know and hearing from all of you readers. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org should you like to chat or nominate someone for me to feature in this column.
May weather in the Central Valley has come upon us in ebbs and flows; it hasn’t decided if it should be windy and overcast, or scorching hot and sunny.
Having lived in San Francisco for the past four years, I welcome the nights where the cool breeze comes through my window. They are a complete contradiction to the nights where the heat keeps me up every hour. But all summer nights come to an end. And they consist of dreams that have long days, cold drinks, and pruny skin in water as the main character. Those are the dreams and the reality we wake to of the 23rd Street Pool.
The 23rd Street Pool, much like the 28th Street Pool, is a calling to the past. It calls back to a “Sandlot” summer that kids of the 90’s reminisce about, or what adults of the 50’s and 60’s recall in their childhood memories.
Sadly, the 23rd Street Pool, a sanctuary of the summer, has been the victim of tagging attacks. No matter who tagged it or when, it was time for a change. My husband, Aaron, and I live near the pool, and we noticed the tagging on our daily walks and bike rides. For six months, it stared at us in the face and we wondered why no one had fixed it. Then we thought, “Why not fix it ourselves?”
My husband, who is a naturally-gifted artist, was up to the challenge one Monday night. So after work we headed to the the pool, chipped paint from the sign, and headed to Home Depot to get paint samples. In typical summer fashion, we grabbed cold drinks and headed back to the pool to repaint the sign.
It took us two hours to bring back the glory of the sign. That was it! We had a wonderful summer night painting at this Merced institution. Whomever painted it originally did a wonderful job. All we did was bring it back to life for the enjoyment of the Spaghetti Acres residents and all who are members of the pool. That was the goal: to add to and protect the pride of this neighborhood. The simple part of it was that it was not all that hard to do considering it was within the realm of our skillset.
Yet, this was just one act to beautify. Countless members keep up the property year after year to provide a safe and fun place for residents to beat the heat while spending quality time with friends and family. In a time where community living seems to be a thing of the past (outside of gym memberships), but a dream of current day (think: tiny house movement), preserving a community pool is a special act of preserving history. I think of a community pool enclosed in barbed-wire fence as a “Sandlot” pool, but for many Baby Boomers, that was a reality of their backyard and of their summers. That “carefree” life so often referred to as something of the past, started and lived in places like community pools. Merced, and many towns in the Central Valley, are fortunate to still have such pools and even lakes. A special thanks is deserved for those that maintain, beautify, and enjoy those community places who in turn, keep history “alive” in our current today reality.
While May was off and on with it’s weather, we can all count on June and the rest of summer being a scorching one. The best way to beat the heat? Swimming!
See you at the 23rd Street Pool!
*If you’re interested in becoming a member, please find out more information on the 23rd Street Pool page on Facebook.
Sara Cribari Hill