By Alex Wilson | Photos by Viktor Budnik
When real estate agent Marcie Youtz was a student at Ventura High School, she never envisioned that one of her most fulfilling career paths would involve driving a school bus. But her two decades behind the wheel is what inspired her to launch a charity six months ago devoted to brightening the lives of Ventura’s homeless students, 805 Community for Children. About three years before officially founding the organization, Youtz began hosting 805 Crop Swap in a grassy area on the grounds of Grace Church Ventura on MacMillan Avenue. The fresh-food exchange forms a community connection with homeless students and their families, typically drawing around 100 people on the first Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“They come when they want to and they leave when they want to. A lot of people hang out and, you know, we drink tea and have goodies and just chit chat and visit,” Youtz said.
Community members trade fresh fruit and vegetables grown in gardens and backyards, as well as homemade items like jam and baked goods at 805 Crop Swap. Anything left over goes to local food pantries. Donors also drop off items homeless students often must do without — and more affluent students might take for granted — such as sporting goods or prom dresses.
“And the word’s getting out,” Youtz said. “The more information I get out to the community, the more help I’m going to get and the more I can help these kids.”
BACKGROUND IN BUSES
Youtz married her high school sweetheart when she was 22 after they met freshman year, and went on to raise a son and daughter, now adults, in Ventura. She was employed in restaurant management when she became a mom and wanted a different career where she could work at the same time that her kids were in school.
“I looked into actually kitchen management at Ventura Unified School District. And when I went and applied, the lady at the front desk asked if I would ever consider driving a school bus. And that’s how it started,” explained Youtz, who recently turned 50. “I started the training. I became a school bus driver. And throughout my whole kids’ childhood, you know, I was the school bus driver.”
It turned out that working as a bus driver was just as much about the connections Youtz made with her passengers as it was about driving them safely to school, and she fell in love with the career she retired from about six months ago.
“Oh, my God. It was amazing. I absolutely freaking loved my job,” Youtz said. “I still interact with some of my kids and I see them all over the place. I have one that comes to the Crop Swap frequently with his grandfather. And you know, just the connection and the relationships that you make with the kids is incredible.”
The saddest part of driving a school bus turned out to be the realization that, among the many privileged kids who attend Ventura’s public schools, there’s a growing number from families lacking a permanent address, sometimes residing in cars or tents. Youtz said she was practically speechless when told the most recent statistics on homelessness in Ventura County, which showed a 9% rise in just the last year and include about 400 kids who attend VUSD schools.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “I just want to be able to make their lives a little better, you know. Because it’s hard growing up now. I mean, it was hard before, but being a homeless kid going to school, it’s so hard. And if I can provide, you know, just little things, like a birthday party, or for them to be involved in sports when they wouldn’t have the opportunity to do that before, it’s a really good feeling.”
Donations to the newly formed charity pay for birthday parties including colorful cakes and up to nine friends at locations such as Golf N’ Stuff, Skating Plus or Buena Lanes bowling alley, Youtz said, with the main goal making it special and individualized for every kid. “I can work with the parents, you know, and maybe do a park party. I mean, I’m open to everything,” she said.
TAKING THE NONPROFIT PLUNGE
It was after Youtz approached VUSD officials about accepting contributions to support homeless students that she realized forming a 501(c)(3) charity was a necessary part of the process in order to have the donations be tax deductible.
“It is challenging just dealing with, you know, the IRS and the state and all the paperwork, but it can happen,” she said of the process of creating 805 Community for Children. “It took me seven months to actually complete everything in order to get my 501(c)(3). But, you know, I’m a pretty determined person, so I was going to make it happen regardless.”
During the holiday season, Youtz also teams up with another nonprofit, Prison Fellowship Angel Tree, supporting about 70 local kids whose parents are incarcerated, a factor that can unfortunately lead to children living on the streets. According to the organization’s website, one in 49 children in the U.S. has a parent behind bars.
“They give me a list of kids, and names for the caregivers that are taking care of the kids, and we just give them Christmas gifts. We’re able to deliver them and give them notes from their moms and dads,” Youtz said about the Angel Tree Christmas program.
When asked about the main goal she’s hoping to accomplish with her new charity Youtz said it’s basically “just to love on the kids.”
“I just want these kids to be able to attend school, be healthy, enjoy it, and just feel a sense of, I don’t know if it’s pride, but just a sense of belonging and love and that they matter and that they’re important,” Youtz said. “I want them to stay in school and graduate and become amazing, amazing human beings.”
805 Community for Children