Gina Castaneda, a Probation Officer from Watsonville spoke.

Speaker Gina Castaneda shared her painful story of a violent youth to a full house at the San Benito County Women’s Fund Summit Thursday night. Her message encouraged the crowd to be “champions” or advocates for others, particularly today’s youth. She said her goal is “to be a champion and create champions.” Castaneda presented an award-winning film that focused on her life growing up in a migrant family from Watsonville. The crowd responded to her presentation with a standing ovation.

The summit focused on being mentors, advocates and defenders to other women. It was held at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall in downtown Hollister. Three hundred twenty people attended the sold-out event, the first held by the Women’s Fund. The Fund was created to provide grant support to area nonprofits that focus on women’s needs. The Women’s Fund also works to give women and girls leadership opportunities throughout the county. It is part of the Community Foundation for San Benito County.

According to Stephanie Hicks, director of development and outreach for the Community Foundation, “Research shows that when women are economically self-sufficient, families thrive and communities flourish”.

The summit was a culmination of outreach projects that started this summer. Three workshops were held in Hollister inviting 140 women in the community to participate and give testimony to their own experiences and concerns. San Benito County is currently ranked among the top 10 most economically-stressed counties in the United States.

More than 20 nonprofits and professionals that provide services to women and girls were stationed at the event. Upon arrival, guests were given a question and asked to use the local nonprofits staged at tables to find answers and learn more about our community.

There was a strong crowd reaction to Castaneda’s speech. Castaneda was raised in Watsonville and her parents were migrant workers. She is the only member in her family to graduate high school. Today, Castaneda is a Santa Cruz County deputy probation officer who has made her name as a public speaker and for being featured in a soccer film called “The Save.” The film was used during the coverage of the 2011 FIFA Women’s Soccer World Cup.

Three videos were also presented, telling local women’s stories about youth, motherhood and the undocumented worker. Schipper Designs, based in San Juan Bautista created a presentation that highlighted current statistics about the county. For the audience, many of the numbers were alarming. For example: Women in San Benito earn 72% of what men earn in the county and one in five women have experienced rape or sexual assault. 

In its first year, the Women’s Fund worked with the Stanford Alumni Association to produce a report on the status of women in San Benito County. The research provides information on the health, parenting and socio-economic condition of our county.

San Benito County Final Status of Women Report 2014

According to the Women’s Fund portion of the Community Foundation website, “Twenty- five percent of our homeless population are women between the ages of 18-60.”  

One of the most alarming statistics uncovered by the research for the Status of Women Report was the high numbers of women living with of domestic violence. The website states that, “According to the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department, the number one problem in San Benito County to date is domestic violence—with gang violence being second.  Additionally, our county has had an unfortunate rise in the number of teenage girls becoming involved in gang life — often by force or without alternative choices.”

To learn more about the Women’s Fund go to their page on the Community Foundation of San Benito County website or call Stephanie Hicks at (831) 630-1924.