Friday, September 13, 2013
Andrea Skorepa is a Hispanic Heritage Month Local Hero who lives and breathes San Ysidro – both as a passionate advocate, and as a life-long resident of the town by the border.
“San Ysidro was like a Tom Sawyer place to grow up,” she says with a touch of nostalgia in her voice. “It was a small town where everyone knew everyone. Less than 2,000 people, but it was a diverse community. We had a railroad that came through, and as children, we used to go and watch the trains go by. I can remember how Gypsies would come and camp on our land, and have bonfires and sing songs, and there I was, hanging out with them. My mother would say, ‘You learn too much from the Gypsies.’ But they inspired me because they were happy. Everything was like a party for them.”
Today, San Ysidro is a bustling, largely Latino community. Located on the international border between the U.S. and Mexico, where tourism is a great boost to its economy, it is California’s most southern community. Skorepa, who has witnessed San Ysidro’s transformation into what it is today, describes its early history and how it came to be.
“San Ysidro got its name in 1909, from a utopian people from the Midwest who made a society called the Little Landers colony,” she explains. “They went to the middle of town and divided it up into 50 x 150-foot homesteading lots, This sustained the colony for several years, but they were white people who passed covenants and restrictions. Eventually, the Hatfield Flood took out the colony, devastating their agriculture. So they started leaving, and when they left, they didn’t care whom they sold to. In 1916, my family bought their land.”
Today, Skorepa considers herself as happy as the Gypsies of her youth. She’s been at the helm of Casa Familiar for over 30 years, serving as president and CEO of the community-based, holistic development organization that helps individuals and families flourish by increasing their quality of life in the areas of human services, community development, recreation, technology, arts and culture, and education. Through her work, Skorepa has found unmitigated joy in empowering her fellow San Ysidrans, and helping them see that they have the knack and know-how to help their community flourish.
"I attribute my success here,” she points outsays, “to believing the people have the answers within themselves and it's our job to enable them to use skills they already have, and polish the ones they don't. For example, we help them see that they don't need the chief of police to tell them what the crime rates are. They know what they are. They're living them. A lot of people believe the authorities know more than they do, but it's not true."
Casa Familiar has an extensive focus on cultural arts, including a museum on its premises, events such as Hecho en Casa craft marketplace, and folklòrico dance classes for children. Programs such as these were designed to promote cultural identity, while passing on traditions to younger generations.
Skorepa notes, “We've always thought that one of the first things that happens in marginalized communities is that they take your culture away. Your music, your art, all those kinds of things, and all you have time to do is work, work, work. But we make sure public art is available, including performances and art in parks. We have 28,000 participants a year using all our resources.”
Skorepa takes pride in what she considers to be her biggest accomplishment at Casa Familiar: She’s given the people of San Ysidro a voice and a seat at the table.
“San Ysidro’s taken seriously now," she says. "It’s on everyone’s radar screen. Politicians acknowledge us, and developers come and attend planning group meetings. They come to Casa for they know it's the only way to get my support, and elected officials have to earn our vote. We do get out the vote, and we do it equally. We know what moves people in different institutions."
She’s also quick to give kudos to her staff for their ability to relate to the community, largely because she’s made sure that all 36 employees have experience as community organizers. More importantly, whenever possible, she makes sure that the people who work at Casa Familiar are themselves from San Ysidro, and have a passion for their community–much in the same way that she does.
“They know what the problems are because they’ve lived them,” she explains in a video produced for Casa Familiar. “They know what it’s like being a single mom trying to raise a family. They know what it’s like trying to find a house to rent, and they have that empathy and rapport with the clients we serve.”
In her role at Casa Familiar, Skorepa represents the community when it comes to the federal government’s plans for the San Ysidro Port of Entry, also known as the world’s busiest land border crossing.
“We keep our community informed, and we want to hear from them, too,” she remarks. “We have public meetings where we ask them what do they want on the border. A lot of them are pedestrians and they want shorter waits. It’s a problem we need to address.”
Ironically, Skorepa remembers a time when crossing the border was a lot simpler and waiting on long lines to cross wasn’t an issue.
“My grandmother had a dog, Mungo,” she recalls, “And we would send him to my aunt’s house in Tijuana, putting messages on him like a St. Bernard. ‘We’ll be there at two o’clock.’ He would go to her house, she would read the note and send one back, with her answer. Mungo would go back and forth between the two countries.”
Prior to joining Casa Familiar, Skorepa got her start in community organizing through volunteerism.
“I was brought up in a generation that saw the oncoming of the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps VISTA," she notes. "I joined VISTA when I was 18 because I believe in human rights, equality, and social justice kinds of issues, and I wanted to do what I could to help."
For eight weeks, Skorepa trained to be a community organizer. She soon found it was something she enjoyed doing, but when she was sent to her first assignment in Brownville, Texas, she had an epiphany.
“These people were exactly the same as the people I left back home," she says. "Here I was trying to help the poor when I realized for the first time that I was poor. So I stayed there for a year, then I came back and finished my education.”
Back in San Ysidro, Skorepa became a kindergarten teacher.
"I taught kindergarten because I wanted to get to children before they had all the curiosity taken out of them. But, while I was teaching I’d become curious about a child and find out more about the family. They’d ask me questions about their children and ask me for resources, and began to come to me with their problems. If I didn’t know the answer, I’d tell them I’d find out. Wanting to help came naturally.”
For Skorepa, helping meant organizing the teachers and fighting for their rights by creating a union for them. Realizing that she needed to do more, she became intrigued when she learned that Casa Familiar was in need of a new president.
"I mentioned to a friend I wish I could work there," Skorepa remembers, "And she said, ‘You can. You’ve been leading five year olds, you can do it.’ She helped me write a resume and I was hired. I learned every job there so I could do them all. Most of the people who work there have been there almost as long as I have. We have very low turnover. Now we’re ushering in a new generation and it’s been wonderful."
Skorepa, who has never moved away since that day long ago when she returned from her stint with VISTA, loves her work and can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I’m going to continue to share my passion with the people of San Ysidro,” she says enthusiastically. “My dream is to leave San Ysidro and Casa Familiar in a position to grow and keep building a better community."