We had the good fortune of connecting with Monna L Dingman and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Monna L, can you talk to us a bit about the social impact of your business?
We started The Los Alamos Foundation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2008 because we wanted to play a bigger role in the life of our community. Los Alamos has a large population of Hispanic families who work in the agriculture and service industries. These are time consuming, physically demanding, and low paying jobs. I had gotten to know many of our Hispanic families through church activities and realized that there were very few support resources available in Los Alamos. We had no childcare options for working parents, no summer activities for children or youth, no one to help translate important documents, very little public transportation. It was a perfect opportunity to step up and do something.
We began by offering music lessons for small groups of young children & film workshops for small groups of teens during the summer. We quickly realized that we needed to do more to serve more families. What if we put idle & restless children who needed something to do in the summer together with idle and restless teens who needed summer jobs? And Summer in the Park was born.
Summer in the Park provides free park-based recreation for children (3 yrs -13yrs old) five hours per day. We hire our local high school and college students to work as Youth Recreation Counselors, engaging and supervising the younger children. Over the 8 years of operation, we grew from seeing 12-15 kids per day, with 3-4 Youth Recreation Counselors to 85-100 kids per day with 18 Youth Recreation Counselors. Over the 5 weeks of our program, we see virtually every child enrolled in our local school. We are also the largest summertime employer of youth in Los Alamos.
For the kids who come as participants, we provide a safe, structured place to come be with friends, be active and engaged in sports, play, arts & crafts, socialization. We also partner with Foodbank to give every child a free, nutritious lunch and snacks every day. Most of the kids who go to our school qualify for free lunches during the year. Offering this option in the summer helps both the child and the family by making sure that the nutrition gap is bridged.
For our youth, Summer in the Park is usually their first paid work experience. We take this very seriously. Prior to hiring, each candidate is interviewed, and we coach them through the interview because it is a teaching opportunity. We want our youth to know how to get a job and how to keep a job. We provide pre-service job training & have every employee First Aid/CPR certified. We had one of our past counselors save the life a child who was choking on a bottle cap. His training gave him the knowledge and the confidence to step up when he saw what was happening, override the adults present, and apply what he had learned.
As the years have progressed, we now have teens who came through the program as younger participants, coming back as Youth Recreation Counselors. We have built in advanced levels of responsibility to give our staff opportunities to practice their leadership skills and grow in confidence. Every Youth Counselor who has come through our program has graduated from high school and gone on to college and they come back to us for letters of reference for college and jobs.
For our parents, Summer in the Park means that they can leave their children in safe, supervised hands knowing they will be with friends, have a variety of activities throughout the day, have a good lunch, and come home tired and dusty but not hungry. We provide Summer in the Park free to every child so there are no barriers to attendance. Parents do not have to worry about scrapping money together for childcare while they go to work, run errands, or take care of the business of running a family.
When the pandemic began, we were asked to sponsor a County Foodbank COVID Emergency Food Distribution here in Los Alamos. We ran this program for 18 months, supplementing what we received from Foodbank with donated produce and canned goods. We also secured cash donations allowing us to purchase things like fresh eggs, soaps, toilet paper and other household essentials. It quickly became apparent that many of our families needed much more than just food. We have a large population of primarily Spanish speaking adults and seniors who were out of work and needed help navigating this new world order. We created our Los Alamos Safety Net program to meet this need. We now have a bilingual Community Outreach Coordinator who has helped dozens of families get emergency EBT, rent assistance, unemployment compensation, medical care, blankets, heaters …the list goes on, to include help with hotspots for students learning at home, telehealth appointments with seniors, and just about anything else you can imagine.
One pandemic high spot was the outpouring of help from our community. We had so many people who wanted to volunteer with the food distribution, securing donations, helping however they could. When we learned that many kids did not have a desk or chair to use for at home school, we got a group together and over a handful of Sundays, we built 85 desks and chairs with donated time, discounted lumber, and cash donations. It was an amazing experience for everyone involved.
We are very fortunate to be here in Los Alamos where a small Foundation like ours can make a significant impact on the community. We have developed many close relationships across the spectrum of people who make up our town and I know that we have made a big difference in many lives here.
But we have also benefitted in more ways than I can explain. When a college student comes home on break and drops by for a visit, or sends a text from school asking advice, or a child comes running up to ask when Summer in the Park will start, or a stranger stops by the office to give our Community Outreach Coordinator flowers for helping his mom, those moments are everything.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am retired now but I spent my working years in nonprofits. Most of my career was working in agencies that serve people with intellectual disabilities, These experiences really shaped my world view. I actually did not know much about intellectual disabilities when I took my first job at an ARC but I knew a lot about developmental & behavioral psychology and that foundation served me well.
I worked my way up from providing direct services to becoming Executive Director at a nonprofit startup. Along the way I met many amazing people, some with significant disabilities. At my first job I met a woman, Charlotte, who was nonverbal and autistic. She did not like to be touched and never looked directly at anyone. She had been taken from her mother as a 6 year old and raised in institutions until she was resettled in a community residence in her hometown in her 50’s. I felt an instant connection with her and later Anne & I became her legal guardians. She was a much loved member of my family for well over 30 years. I learned so much from her. She taught me patience, appreciation for simple things, finding joy in sun shadows and warmth in an unexpected hug.
Much of what I bring to Summer in the Park comes from Charlotte. She loved children and was always excited by the little gifts my nieces and nephews gave her. She treated children as equals in her world and they really responded to that. At the park we teach our staff to treat children with dignity and respect, to appreciate the things they make, to listen to them, and to learn from them what they need to have a good day. Since Charlotte was nonverbal I had to learn how to decipher her gestures & facial expressions. I got pretty good at that over the years and it helped me learn to communicate with young children and kids with behavioral needs. These are skills our Youth Counselors need to be successful with the children in their care.
I think that I am most proud of the work we have accomplished through Summer in thePark. I have had the opportunity to mentor so many wonderful kids. I have watched them grow from tentative young counselors to college graduates. Many of them have gone on to teaching careers and credit their Park experience with helping them find direction. I have kids whom I first met as 6 year olds and are now in college. I can hardly believe so much time has gone by! There is nothing more satisfying for me than having a park alumni ring the doorbell for a visit to “catch-up,” or seeing a text message come in from someone to say hello or ask for a reference for a new job. To be a part of their lives, to watch them grow up has been more amazing than I can put into words.
Some people think that Summer in the Park is for underprivileged kids, or that the Rec Counselor jobs are for Hispanic youth. No, these programs are for kids. It just so happens that most of the kids in our town are Hispanic and many come from struggling homes. All people are more alike than we are different. The things Hispanic kids need to succeed are the same things non-Hispanic kids need to succeed: opportunity, support, encouragement, safe places to play, to experiment, try new things. These are our future doctors, architects, teachers, politicians, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers. We need to protect their futures, cherish these children and young adults, treat them with dignity and respect. We need to believe in them.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well, Los Alamos is pretty small. We have one main street and it is not Main St. It’s Bell St. Main Street is the next block down, there’s nothing there to see. When I first moved to Los Alamos, a little over 20 years ago, there was nothing happening here. It was just an old cow town surrounded by cattle ranches and a few antique stores. Today, most of the cattle ranches are either vineyards or cannabis farms and Bell St is filling with fine restaurants. A week is too long to spend here for a vacation! But, lets give it a try.
Monday: First place we go is Charlie’s for lunch. Charlies is burgers & Mexican food. We can sit on the patio and watch trucks speed through town. The servers are all very friendly but Charlie is quite a character. It’s hard to tell what kind of mood he’s in because his good mood volume and his bad mood volume are pretty much the same. He’s been in Los Alamos his whole life so he’s got some stories to tell.
After Charlies we take a walk through town. It’s less than a mile from one end of town to other. We’ll pass the 1860 Union Hotel, one of the oldest buildings in town. It’s been through several owners and has a storied history. Next to it is the old gas station recently turned into a fine dining establishment. We might eat there one day this week. And, next to that is the Victorian Inn. The Victorian was actually trucked here from somewhere else and planted on Bell St. It was made into a very unique B&B. All of the rooms have a different theme from the Egyptian to the 1950’s diner. Quite a quirky place but with excellent service and a story to tell when you get home.
On the other side of the street are a new boutique store, meant for visitors to town and a couple of antique stores. We can browse those for a bit and then stop by Babi’s Beer Emporium for refreshment. Quite a large selection of boutique beers and wine. We can watch people strolling through the small park across the street. Next up is Bell’s restaurant. This building was originally a bank, then a couple of bars, then another restaurant and now Bell’s. Bell’s in high end French dining with a young award winning chef. She and her husband own it and have really upped the dining experience in Los Alamos.
We will continue down the street passing another antique store, Pico (restaurant), a pottery store and the town center – otherwise known as the post office. We don’t get our mail delivered here so everyone has to go to the post office. If you need to announce or prove anything you put your posters up at the post office. now we are tired and head home.
Tuesday: We will have breakfast at Plenty. Jasper is chef/owner & Christine is go owner. Great service, awesome avocado toast, friendly and relaxing. What to do next? Hmm, well, let’s take a walk up to the county park. Schools in session so we can’t cut through the campus so we take the long way around. Its a pleasant walk, (or so I’ve been told. I haven’t actually done it in some time because my knees aren’t up to the hill challenge.) It’s a very nice park with a couple of short hiking trails. We’ll probably run into someone I know walking their dog. After a brief chat we will head over to the cemetery. Why? Well, why not? We’ll head home for lunch and barbecue on the patio for dinner and drink wine.
Wednesday: You’ve probably heard everyone talking about Bob’s Well Bread. It’s a bakery situated in another old gas station. It’s been here several years now and draws crowds pretty much everyday. We will head over their for morning pastries and I hear they have good espresso. I’m not a coffee drinker so I can’t vouch for it myself. We can sit outside and right across the street is the Antique Depot. It is an actual antique train depot. A narrow gauge short line ran through Los Alamos once upon a time from Santa Maria to Ballard. In Ballard you had to switch to horse drawn wagon to get up over the San Marcos pass and down to Santa Barbara. Today the Depot is being converted from a rambling antique mall to an event location. It has also become the new home of the Los Alamos Theater Group! Community theater at its best. We can go see their latest production on Friday night. If I remember to buy the tickets in time.
So, yeah, what next? It’s still morning. A winery tour perhaps? I’ll be the designated driver. We’ll go out Alisos Canyon Road and hit up all the wineries on the winery trail. There’s a lot so don’t overdo the tasting! That took up the whole afternoon and did you notice how many bike riders there were? This is beautiful biking country, rolling hills, mooing cows, quiet roads, wine… Let’s go to Pico for dinner. This is the old general store. Back in the day you could buy everything here from blue jeans to beans to shotguns. It was lit by a single lightbulb in the middle of the store. The lighting is much better now and Pico makes wonderful food. Try one of there burgers, the best!
Thursday, you’re still here? Ummmm, I’ll scramble and egg for you for breakfast and we can sit on the patio and listen to the birds. They’ve got a lot to say. Do you want to go drive by the new cannabis farms? They’ve all got security so you can’t sneak in and none of them have tasting rooms, maybe that’s coming? Also, they grow the goods in those big plastic green house things that are now everywhere for everything, so you can’t even tell what’s growing inside. Maybe go to Solvang for the day, buy eclairs perhaps? Good news though, Flatbread is now open Thursday nights! We can go there for dinner and order some, well, flatbread. The uninformed might call it pizza but around these parts its flatbread, with pizza toppings.
Friday! Yes, it’s finally Friday and we are going to see the Los Alamos Theater Group perform their newest one act play tonight!. We have a committed group of thespians, set builders, and our own local playwright. We go to enjoy the show and support the theater group because they support us! It’s a small town, we have to help each other out. So, we will start the day with a big breakfast at home, I’ve made some bagels. Then we will stroll around the neighborhood, very slowly, we want to take our time to enjoy all the sites and sounds. After that we can hop in the car and drive over Drum Canyon road, up past the park to see all the wildflowers. In the valley below there is another winery with a tasting room (still no cannabis tasting rooms) we’ll stop there. Then we will head back up Drum Canyon road to see the wildflowers from the other direction. You have to be careful on Drum Canyon road, It’s in very bad shape, narrow, and has several hairpin turns. If you encounter a bike rider, slow down because they usually travel in herds and you will run into more and they will be in the middle of the road.
So, thats the morning. Charlies for lunch?
The play was delightful, quite a few hams in this town. We close the evening with wine and cookies. What are your plans for tomorrow because we have seriously exhausted everything to see or do in Los Alamos!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My wife, Anne, set up The Los Alamos Foundation and presented it to me on Valentines Day 2008. That was an amazing gift that I will always treasure. I don’t know exactly what she thought I would do with a foundation but she has supported me every step of the way. We would not be able to do a fraction of what we do now if not for her work behind the scenes.
We have also received tremendous support from the Santa Ynez Valley Foundation. They got on board with grants for Summer in the Park early in the game and have given us financial support that helped see us through the COVID crisis. We couldn’t ask for better friends!
And, of course our community. Our local volunteers and donors have meant so much to us. It is really humbling to know that we only need to ask and our call will be answered.
Facebook: The Los Alamos Foundation