Imagine this: You grew up in a family with an alcoholic mother and a father in prison. You’ve been drinking heavily since you were 15. You are about to leave your foster home because you are too old to qualify for it.

Through the intervention of several local social service agencies, you’ve been able to get into a 90-day inpatient substance abuse treatment program. While there, you continue your high school studies and discover an aptitude for math and science.

You have vowed that you are going to remain sober and turn your life around. You start by graduating with your high school class. But what do you do next?

Enter the nonprofit agency If Given a Chance. You’d been referred to this agency by your treatment program counselor because of your apparent resilience and positive attitude. You have overcome at least six of the 20 kinds of life challenges If Given a Chance considers in its applicants, and you have strong educational goals.

You are accepted into the program, honored at the annual awards dinner, and provided mentoring and counseling as well as financial assistance throughout your college career. Because of If Given a Chance, you are able to become an educated, stable, and contributing member of society.

“In this time of economic challenges, like many nonprofit organizations, If Given a Chance is struggling to fulfill our mission,” said Mike Pearson, board president of If Given a Chance. “Many, including the president of the United States, have said the most important way to ensure a successful future for our children is through education. They are our future. They are our inspiration. They are our hope.”

What is your purpose or mission?

Pearson: “If Given a Chance discovers high school graduates who have overcome extraordinary challenges and mentors them to achieve success. Through its awards fund and guidance program, If Given a Chance provides financial assistance and individualized support for students who have overcome challenges, are committed to achieving a post–high school education, and continue on their path of positive change.”

In brief, what’s the history of your organization?

“If Given a Chance was born in 1995 out of a community process designed to address youth violence in Napa County. Near the end of the final meeting, a young man stood and asked to speak. He thanked everyone for their efforts and supported several of the recommendations. He went on, however, to say, ‘I have one problem with all of this. There are over 300 people here. You are all here because of what we did wrong. How many would show up if we did something right?’

“This comment gave birth to the vision of If Given a Chance. It begins by recognizing and celebrating the courage evidenced by graduates in making a tremendous turnabout in their lives. We believe that community recognition of that turnabout is a key element in ‘showing up’ when these young people do the ‘right thing.’ Further support is provided by mentoring, counseling and providing financial assistance toward higher-education needs. The goal is to achieve positive, contributing members of our community.”

Who are the people you serve?

“If Given a Chance currently serves approximately 60 Napa County youths from every county high school, including alternative, traditional and community. Students are nominated by adults who know them and who often speak to their life story in all its complexity. Nominators range from probation or police officers to counselors, teachers and foster parents. If Given a Chance students mirror the demographics of the community in which they live: 56 percent are Caucasian; 42 percent are Hispanic; 2 percent are African-American, Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander.”

Is there an anecdote that illustrates the work you do?

“Meet one of our students, Katrina Brady: ‘Things have been very busy this semester. My seizures are continuing to get better but stress triggers grand mals sometimes. I spent about a month in a wheelchair this last semester after a seizure at school, which caused vertigo that was so bad I couldn’t walk. I still have paralysis after my seizures and have to use the wheelchair periodically. I have one more semester to finish my bachelor’s in psychology, and I am getting really excited to be done with school. Things for me are really good right now. I am proud to say that I made it through another semester with straight A’s.

“‘If Given a Chance has been a miracle in my life. I don’t know how I would have gotten my degree without your support. You have been the only constant source of encouragement I’ve had through my academic career. Thank you!’”

What’s a current need or upcoming project?

“The need for funds and support is growing. College tuition continues to rise faster than the rate of inflation, while financial aid budgets are shrinking. Additionally, staff and course cuts often make it difficult for students to enroll in required classes, thus lengthening the time it takes to meet graduation requirements.

“In addition to financial support, which is always needed, there are many volunteer possibilities with If Given a Chance. Volunteers are needed to serve on committees, assist with fundraising, help manage events, provide support for students, create materials for our programs, write copy, and provide clerical and computer support. If you can help in any of these ways, call 260-5656 or email”

Each week, Napa Valley CanDo provides a profile of a Napa Valley nonprofit or service club — what the organization does, what it needs and how an interested person can get involved. For more information on the column, contact Hilary Zunin at To learn more about opportunities for community service, visit

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