Crossing the Finish Line

Jason just before he crossed the finish line.

When Jason Valderrama stumbled onto Cloud & Fire, he could never have predicted how much it would change his life. For the first time in a long time, he found people who believed in him. All of Cloud & Fire held him accountable to his goal of completing high school but also encouraged him with grace and love when he felt like giving up and walking away.

On April 22, Jason ran the 10K with many other students and friends of Cloud & Fire at our Race it Forward charity run. He would tell us later that this was his first time doing any sort of major exercise since tearing a ligament in his leg many years ago, an injury that kept him from playing the sports that he loved and keeping up with the other areas of his personal life. In fact, this marked the beginning of a dark time for Jason.

Students gather for a quick pep talk before the race.

After leaving school to focus on issues at home, he watched as the things he had once been passionate about disappeared into a monotonous lifestyle defined by work, home, and socializing. With his arrival at Cloud & Fire YouthBuild and the change it was bringing to his life, Jason considered getting back to his athletics, something that had brought him so much joy in the past. However, his passion was overshadowed by doubt in his leg’s ability to run like before. But when he crossed that 10K finish line, Jason exceeded his own expectations and proved to himself that he was indeed ready to run again. Completing the race was symbolic to him, a picture of the pride and accomplishment he will feel as he crosses the stage as one of our 2017 graduates.

It’s only fitting that our charity run would inspire students like Jason, who has also been transformed by his time at Cloud & Fire in several other areas of his life. In everything we do, our organization cannot help but inspire and motivate students to pursue the change they desire to see in their own lives.


Student Volunteer, Servant Leader


Emerson Martinez sporting our Cloud & Fire t-shirt with this year’s theme: Dream Big Work Hard.

This week was National Volunteer Week, and, as a nonprofit, Cloud & Fire knows the value of those who serve, especially at organizations like our own.  While we recognize and appreciate all the individuals we consider part of our volunteer base, we also want to highlight those within our student body who have stepped up as servant leaders.  One student that always comes to mind whenever teachers or staff are in need of assistance is Emerson Martinez.  Since his arrival last September, Emerson has been extremely involved with student affairs, from being a member of YouthBuild Policy Council to being a supporting member of new groups at Cloud & Fire like the College Prep Club. But more than that, he has stepped up on numerous occasions to help with anything and everything, from manual tasks like setting up and tearing down events to taking younger students under his wing.

Before coming to Cloud & Fire, Emerson never had much volunteer experience. He has always loved to “just be helpful.” He says the difference between being a student volunteer and a member of policy council is the freedom in getting to just focus on the acts of service, as opposed to having some end goal in mind. He particularly enjoyed helping at Race it Forward, Cloud & Fire’s charity run, where he was stationed along the runner’s track to direct racers and pass out water cups. Emerson’s favorite form of volunteering is directly serving other people; his ideal role would be to come back after graduating from Cloud & Fire and be a mentor and tutor to the younger students. Even now, he has taken the opportunity to start connecting with some of the teenage students (twenty-three years old himself) and knows other older students who would be good mentors as well.

Since growing as a student volunteer, Emerson has put more thought into other service opportunities around him. He’s noticed the elderly home up the street from his home, and has wondered about how he could serve there. Once he has more time, he would like to help out with after school programs like LA’s Best, and definitely return to support students at Cloud & Fire.  When it comes to encouraging our current students to get more involved, Emerson says “they need to be motivated by knowing the difference their volunteering can make.” We discussed how it really comes down to a change in mindset; genuine volunteering cannot be done solely for credit or in search of a reward. Emerson’s new understanding of service definitely came only after his time at Cloud & Fire: “I feel like I do make a difference at this school…I do get noticed and when people need help they come to me, and I like that.” Emerson reminds us that students might not realize they are making a difference unless our organization recognizes and encourages them to keep growing, thereby continuing the cycle of their service. Since volunteering is a sacrifice, there will be plenty of barriers for our students, whether that means limited time or family responsibilities. Having time to volunteer is often a luxury, and Emerson understands what a privilege it is to have such time. But Cloud & Fire is extremely grateful that he chooses to spend it here with us.


Worldwide Pay it Forward Day is Friday, April 28, 2017

“Pay it forward” is an expression that means we repay good deeds done to us by passing good deeds on to someone else other than the person who did good to us. The idea has caught on so well that Friday, April 28 is Worldwide Pay it Forward Day.  

One of the highest ways of “paying it forward” comes through charity work, when good deeds are done anonymously or without ever meeting recipients. The nonprofit sector is rooted in our built-in need to “give back” when we have been blessed in some way. Volunteerism, monetary gifts, or actually working for a charity are just a few ways we can participate in what has also become known as “random acts of kindness.”

Runners “pay it forward” by crossing the finish line at our 2015 Race it Forward 5K/10K

On April 22, 2017, Cloud & Fire, a charity devoted to helping Valley at-risk youth, will sponsor Race it Forward, a 5K/10K charity run at the Hansen Dam Recreation Center. The event is a great way to combine fitness with doing good for others, as all proceeds will help foster youth, homeless youth, and teen parents who are in need of finishing high school.  

Cloud & Fire is the premiere high school completion program for Valley out-of-school youth. Because some schools in low-income areas such as areas in North Hills, Van Nuys, and Panorama City have dropout rates as high as 76%, there may be as many as 10,000 youth in the Valley in need of high school completion programs. Unlike packet programs, such as Mission View or Opportunities for Learning, Cloud & Fire provides a full high school curriculum, including electives, leadership training, project-based learning, and college and career readiness. Youth up to age 25 may enroll.

To register for Race it Forward or to learn more about Cloud & Fire, visit  To learn about International Pay it Forward Day, visit


Those of us who lived through the Los Angeles riots will never forget watching our city erupt into flames after the acquittal of the four L.A.P.D. officers who beat Rodney King. Many neighborhoods were burned and looted, but the destruction done by flames of racial hatred was even more devastating than the massive structural damage to more than 1,000 affected buildings. The loss of $1 billion was incidental compared to the horrific eruption of rage and the erosion of trust that occurred in just a few days’ time. We wondered if L.A. could ever return from these catastrophic blows. A residue of suspicion blanketed the city like a heavy, blinding fog.

My commute out of the city that April night was on an eerily deserted freeway, with mine the lone car traveling outward to the Inland Empire. I was deeply relieved to finally arrive safely at home, and take shelter far away from the round-the-clock strife in the heart of the city.  Back in those days, the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where Reginald Denny was dragged from his big rig and nearly beaten to death, or Lakeview Terrace, the site of the Rodney King arrest and beating, were only distant places to me. I couldn’t pinpoint them on a map, and surely could not have anticipated that only one year later, I would become a resident of Los Angeles, and eventually work in an inner city community not much different from the places that were highlighted in the riots.

April 29, 2017 marks twenty-five years since the L.A. riots occurred. Much has happened to rebuild our city, erase scars, and perhaps even pacify the racial tensions of the past. Nevertheless, we would do well to pause and remember, and to ask ourselves what can yet be done to quiet the troubled waters that might still flow underneath the surface of our city. With Black Lives Matter ringing in our ears, surely we cannot lull ourselves into believing that all has been solved with the passage of time.

Although I have been a resident of the San Fernando Valley for twenty-four years now, only recently did I learn that the Rodney King beating took place at the corner of Foothill Blvd. and Osborne Street, near the entrance of the lovely Hansen Dam Recreation Center. This discovery came while simultaneously doing historical research on the Valley and planning a charity run called Race it Forward to take place in Hansen Dam on April 22. The race will raise funds to help troubled youth who have dropped out of school, been in the foster care system, have become teen parents, are homeless, or who deal with substance abuse. The event, which takes place just steps away from where King was beaten, seems a fitting way to commemorate the events of 1992, as it is a way to invest in lives and perhaps prevent similar situations in the future.  

By all accounts, Rodney King led a life that was chaotic and ruinous. While this by no means justified the beating he endured, it does raise the question whether his life—and the history of Los Angeles—might have turned out differently had there been effective interventions in his life. Cloud & Fire, the sponsor of Race it Forward, is a faith-based organization that is dedicated to providing holistic interventions in the troubled young lives of those who are typically at-risk, low-income, minority youth. Investing in the lives of at-risk youth is perhaps the most appropriate way we can remember the events in Los Angeles twenty-five years ago, and ensure that nothing of that magnitude ever takes place here again.


Race it Forward will provide scholarships for youth to go to camp, finish high school, and put their lives back together, regardless of their past. To register or for more information, visit


Return of the Alumni


Mr. Ren reunites with alumni in the student library named after him.

Last month, Cloud & Fire had the honor of hosting several of our alumni for a special huddle talk and lunchtime gathering. Not only did past graduates come visit, but Mr. Ren Floyd also came back to catch up with his old students and fellow staff. It was a fun-filled and nostalgic day as old friends reconnected and new students had the chance to meet alumni. The huddle talk included a message from Mr. Ren as well as some words from three of our past graduates, Luis Matias, Jorge Perez, and Havah Sterns.

Reflecting on her time at Cloud & Fire, Havah shared that “it was the loving and encouraging environment that showed me that everyone can do it, if you just try hard enough and persevere through your own mental negativity… I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. But Cloud & Fire had these great programs, there were health care [professionals] that came…and I like science so I signed up with them, took a health care [class] at Pierce college, and that kind of set me on the path that I’m on now. I want to become a nutritionist in the future, and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t tried and stepped out of my comfort zone.”

Current students and past staff and alumni catch up over lunch.

Similarly, Luis beamed as he talked about his time here. “Cloud & Fire was actually a really good place to come to when I didn’t graduate from my high school…everyone here are the nicest people out there. Even the people who aren’t teachers, everybody is amazing. I still don’t know what I want to do, even though I did graduate, but the thing is I can actually go to college, I’ve been accepted to some colleges. I’ve just been working, but I want to go to college now, and I think I’m going to go this fall. I thought it was really hard to pass my classes [here], but it really wasn’t, because everybody really helps out. Mr. Carlos would help out, Mr. Ren, Mr. Jackson, every teacher I had.”
Cloud & Fire prides itself in providing more than just a school, but also a family for our youth. This special celebration of our alumni and their accomplishments, as well as their lasting ties to their school, was truly a testament to that.

Family Fun Day at Hansen Dam

IMG_0551eThis April, plan a fun-filled family day at the Hansen Dam Recreation Center in Lakeview Terrace. Begin the day with Cloud & Fire’s Race it Forward, a charity 5K/10K run/walk that the whole family can enjoy together. The race benefits foster and homeless youth, teen parents, and youth in recovery who are returning to school after dropping out. It is a great way to teach children about helping others. Race it Forward begins at 8:30am. Kids 6 and under are free.

After the race, enjoy a picnic in the park, visit the Hansen Dam Aquatic Center (only $1 for kids), or take in the interactive Discovery Cube ($12.95 for kids).  On any given day, Hansen Dam is one of the best family entertainment bargains in the Valley, but Race it Forward is a great way for the entire family to exercise together for a worthy cause. Children as young as seven years old will run to help the Valley’s older youth get back in school.  Strollers are welcome, so children of all ages can take part.

Many San Fernando Valley schools have dropout rates as high as 75%, and Cloud & Fire is committed to helping older youth finish school and enter college or careers. For more information, visit 

Inspired and Informed at the Adelante Mujer Latina Career Conference

IMG_1903Two Saturdays ago, four of our Cloud & Fire ladies attended the 2017 Adelante Mujer Latina Career Conference at CSUN which was put on by the Comisión Femenil of San Fernando Valley. They heard inspiring stories from multiple women who pursued their education and careers despite personal challenges, and attended workshops for careers in education, social work, media and journalism, law enforcement, and more.  Each of them were touched by different elements of the conference, from learning about careers that they had never considered before to identifying with the amazing professionals and their personal experience with education in California.

Janet Rodriguez (pictured far left) enjoyed the education and dentistry workshops. She learned about the higher levels of education, like the California board where they plan the future of schools and educational policy. In the dentistry workshop, they shared about all the offices in the Van Nuys area that actually offer volunteer opportunities to build their experience.

Daniela Guerrero (pictured center) was particularly inspired by the presentation of one of the teachers in the education workshop. Not only was she Latina but she also came from a background where none of her family pursued education, something Daniela strongly identified with. Hearing from Dr. Angeles, who is among the extremely small percentage of Hispanics to earn their phD, motivated Daniela to let go of any fear or doubt she had in her education dreams. She also found the session on grants and scholarship extremely informational, and was inspired by the thought that, even if your gpa is low and you feel like there are no scholarships for you, paying for college is always possible somehow.

Kimberly Ortega (pictured second from the left) also went to the education workshop and was really inspired by the other presenter, who was born in the US, moved to Mexico at four, and returned to the states for high school. Despite the language barrier, she took AP English and pursued a college degree for journalism, a career which eventually led to work in the Department of Education. Her dedication and determination really inspired Kimberly to follow her own dream of becoming a science teacher.

Eileen Rodriguez (pictured second from the right) felt like she really learned a lot. In both her workshops (law enforcement and media and journalism) they focused on the power of networking and that getting into a career often depends on who you know. From this Eileen advised our current students to just go to any and every event around career planning, whether here at Cloud & Fire or elsewhere. Wisely, she added, “being at home, you guys are not going to find anyone who is in their career and wanting to guide you. So just go!”

All our Cloud & Fire ladies enjoyed an informational and inspirational conference; every woman there, whether they were an announcer, leader of a workshop, or keynote speaker, had only positive and empowering words for all the young Latina women. They left refreshed and ready to continue pursuing their education and career goals.