90.1 FM San Luis Obispo | 91.7 FM Paso Robles | 91.1 FM Cayucos | 95.1 FM Lompoc | 90.9 FM Avila
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Small town, big heart': How a nonprofit collective is leading Guadalupe's transformation

A mural in Guadalupe celebrates the city's small-town identity.
Melanie Senn
A mural in Guadalupe celebrates the city's small-town identity.

Guadalupe, a predominantly Hispanic/Latino city in Santa Barbara County, is seeing growth, redevelopment, and revitalization due in large part to some friends of the city: a nonprofit collective called Los Amigos de Guadalupe.

Building community resilience

Inside the bright, sunny room of Guadalupe’s seniors center, three women are sitting at one of the many occupied tables.

One of the women, Odelia Niño, has lived in Guadalupe since she was 12 years old.

“Now, I’m 64. I come here to the seniors [center] and communicate with my friends, and have a good time. Sometimes we play Mexican Bingo, a penny or two pennies a card, and we have a good time," she said.

Niño said the closure of the seniors center during the height of the COVID pandemic was difficult for her.

“It was closed almost two years. I [had] nothing to do. I live by myself with my puppy," she said.

Now, she comes to the center Monday through Friday.

“I volunteer to put out the coffee, put out the napkins and the sugar and salt and pepper. It’s fun — I like to get out of my house because I live alone.”

When she leaves here, she goes home and hangs out with her puppy.

“Yeah, she’s terrible. She’s a Dennis-the-Menace! I can’t leave napkins around because she’ll tear them up. So, it’s nice coming here, you know, because we’re like family.”

This feeling of family and the willingness, even eagerness, to volunteer, seems to pervade Guadalupe.

The Guadalupe Senior Center is one of the city's most important gathering places.
Melanie Senn
The Guadalupe Senior Center is one of the city's most important gathering places.

Opportunities for gathering, networking, volunteering, and — as Odelia put it — having fun have expanded recently, as have the places where that happens. This is in large part due to a nonprofit group in town called Los Amigos de Guadalupe.

The brainchild of Tom Brandeberry, Los Amigos de Guadalupe has worked with the city to help find, apply for, win, and implement grants. The goal, as Brandeberry sees it, is to increase community resilience.

“The resilience plan and the work that we’re doing in Guadalupe centers around [this]: How do we take what is already a very close-knit community and pretty resilient anyway, and how do we build on that resilience?”

According to Brandeberry, networking, nonprofits, and community involvement all are important parts of this. But for him, resilience has another integral component, one that’s more concrete — sometimes literally.

“So, for example, Leroy Park, which was bringing a community center that was hardly used and a park that was pretty empty to a completely redeveloped park, a completely redeveloped community center. And people [are now] there all day, every day," Brandeberry said. "And that’s where you start saying: That’s building resilience because it’s creating social infrastructure.”

For Brandeberry, having physical places to go matters, especially places where people can intermingle. Getting the funds to get the senior center opened was part of that vision.

“We have to remember that these are seniors who just spent two years isolated, in a lot of cases. So, getting the senior meals program up and running and the senior center opened for business again creates social infrastructure."

Some grants, however, are more about gathering people and strengthening networks, like a grant that facilitated the creation of the Guadalupe Business Association.

Brandeberry said Los Amigos de Guadalupe recently received another grant meant to help local nonprofits decide if they would benefit from a similar association.

“The Fund for Santa Barbara gave us a small grant, but an important one, to see if the nonprofits of Guadalupe see value in collaborating with each other. From a resilience perspective, I’m going to tell you, yes there is," he said.

"The networking, the value, the ability to say: 'I have a meeting, [or] I have an event that’s coming up next month, can you help us publicize that event? 'The idea of: 'I need some extra volunteers for this event that’s coming up, can you help us?' Just on that level, I think there’s value in this.”

Brandeberry said over 20 nonprofits gathered at the first meeting in August after receiving the grant. He said it was very successful, with more than 40 people in the room.

Brandeberry feels this collaboration in attracting funding is important, because the city doesn’t have the staff or funding to seek out these grants itself.

“If we don’t play that role, then none of these grants become available, nobody writes those grants, and nobody implements the grants.”

Christina Hernandez is the outreach coordinator for the Dunes Center.
Melanie Senn
Christina Hernandez is the outreach coordinator for the Dunes Center.

Strengthening a nonprofit coalition in Guadalupe

A couple of blocks away from the Senior Center on Highway 1 sits the Dunes Center, a nonprofit focused on the preservation and restoration of the Guadalupe Dunes. They offer tours, information, maps, and educational programs for schools and the public.

Christina Hernandez is the center's outreach coordinator.

“I was born in Santa Maria but raised in Guadalupe my whole life, so I have really strong connections to the community," she said.

Hernandez has been on the board of Los Amigos for two years, and volunteers regularly.

“I started off volunteering in the city of Guadalupe because of the mayor, Ariston Julian. He extended his hand and allowed me and my family to work with him. And I said, ‘Oh, wow, we can really make a difference just by participating and being there every day and volunteering,'" Hernandez said.

"And I talked to Tom [Brandeberry], and he was talking with me about Los Amigos and how their goal was to bring resilience to the city of Guadalupe, and that really grabbed my attention. Being a resident of Guadalupe, there’s a lot of barriers that we face, and if there’s any way I can help maybe break down some of those barriers, I said, ‘Hey, this is what I should be helping.’”

Hernandez says those barriers can take many forms.

“We do lack a lot of resources, educational opportunities. As a child growing up in Guadalupe, I didn’t know that museums were for me, and so once I started working at the Dunes Center, I realized it was because my parents didn’t have the opportunity to take us to museums, and maybe we didn’t get the educational opportunities growing up here in Guadalupe."

Hernandez said they were thrilled to see so many nonprofits and community leaders gathered at the first nonprofit meeting hosted by Los Amigos.

“Everybody is willing to put all hands on deck, and that’s what I’m really excited about. As people say, ‘Small town with a big heart.’ I think we’re ready to move forward," Hernandez said.

The nonprofits will continue to meet over the next year, and Hernandez hopes that in the end they will decide to form a committee or association.

“I believe that it’s time that all of our nonprofits get to know each other, that our city council knows what our organizations are doing and get to be able to work together. That way we can make sure we’re making the biggest impact possible," she said.

In addition to the volunteerism, including representing the Lions Club at the nonprofit meeting, Hernandez is running unopposed in the November election for the Guadalupe City Council.

The Guadalupe Dunes Center is home to artifacts from 1956's "The Ten Commandments," shot on the dunes.
Melanie Senn
The Guadalupe Dunes Center is home to artifacts from 1956's "The Ten Commandments," shot on the dunes.

“Growing up in Guadalupe, I didn’t know I could be a leader, and I believe that everybody has the ability to be a leader and make changes. And so I do encourage a lot of people to stand with us to really make an impact, to make sure that our youth and our future generations have the best future possible," she said.

Ariston Julian, Mayor of Guadalupe, agrees that positive things are happening — and that a lot of it has to do with Los Amigos.

“The city has an agreement with them for professional consultant services. We actually went into agreement with them in October of 2020. They would act as our kind of sounding board, grant managers," Julian said.

"Our city contracts with the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Los Amigos helps manage that. The city doesn’t have the capacity to do that.”

Los Amigos has helped the city win more than $20 million in money for various projects and programs, including the senior meals, Leroy Park, the Royal Theater, and Central Park, according to Mayor Julian. Los Amigos will manage the $10 million the city received for the Royal Theater Project, which Mayor Julian said will create jobs.

“You know, Guadalupe is — and I don’t like the word disadvantaged — it’s underserved. But there’s an 86 percent Latino [population], and most of them are low-income, and there’s a need for resources.”

Fostering the spirit of Guadalupe

Back at the senior senter, lunch is ready, which means Belinda Popovich is in the kitchen. She works as a residential real estate agent, serves on the board of Los Amigos de Guadalupe as secretary, and manages the senior meals program for the organization.

Popovich arrives at the center five mornings a week at 7a.m. to prepare lunch for seniors, averaging about 35 hours a week as a volunteer. It’s a family affair: she brought in her mother-in-law and adult nephew to help prepare, serve, and deliver the meals to the seniors who cannot make it to the senior center.

“The city is allowing us to use the kitchen, so that way we can be producing all of these meals for our seniors. It helps bring nutrition and stability; whether they are food-insecure or not, everyone is welcome at our table," Popovich said.

On the menu today is a fresh salad, tortilla soup and brown rice with sauteed onion and acorn squash. Popovich said she feels that everyone deserves good, healthy food like this and holds a high standard for what they serve.

“It means the world to me to know that regardless of a person’s income, if they qualify for a meal here, they’re sitting with everybody else at the table getting the exact same delicious food," she said.

"The point isn’t to be just producing food that nutritionally makes it. If I don’t want to eat it myself, I’m not about to serve it to them. I want something that I want to eat to be served here, so that’s what we’re striving for.”

Popovich said she joined with Los Amigos because she likes the vision of being able to go after grant funds to start revitalizing the town.

Belinda Popovich is on the board of Los Amigos De Guadalupe, and manages the senior meals program.
Melanie Senn
Belinda Popovich is on the board of Los Amigos De Guadalupe, and manages the senior meals program.

“I mean, it’s like a renaissance for Guadalupe, really helping us to hit our stride again — get those funds that we need, get those programs back and running. So that way, it brings more equity to town, because I think that’s really the driver.”

Popovich also attended the meeting of Guadalupe’s nonprofits. For her, the grant from the Fund of Santa Barbara was meaningful and important.

“I didn’t realize we had so many nonprofits here. Because we’re very disjointed, [and] everyone’s in their own little bubble," she said. "I think it’s critical for the growth of the nonprofit sector in Guadalupe, because we’re all coming together.”

She said that during breakout groups, everyone shared information and exchanged emails.

“It’s really organizing us so that instead of just being these little lone tumbleweeds out there, we are now actually a wheel. We have a center core; there are spokes, and together we’re driving a lot of movement within town that’s just getting more help to people and more resources for businesses and individuals alike," she said.

"Across all the nonprofits that are working here, their drive is to really bring equity, because Guadalupe’s always been the underdog, and we kind of have to fight for ourselves.”

Popovich said that she and a lot of the volunteers she knows all want that equity, and are undaunted by the challenge.

“Slam the door in my face, I’m going to kick it down because I’m Guadalupean and that’s how we were brought up," she said.

That toughness and resilience already existed in Guadalupe. Los Amigos de Guadalupe is just there to foster it.

Melanie Senn was born in Camden, New Jersey (the resting place of Walt Whitman), but was raised in California. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin American Literature from UCSB, and after living a couple years in Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, got her master’s degree in English. She had a 25-year teaching career, including 17 years at Cal Poly where she taught essay writing and argument. Now she dedicates her time to writing and audio storytelling, and hanging out with her with her two teenage sons and their dad, musician Derek Senn.
Related Content