San Pasqual Academy sits just off the road, a few miles past the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
But without the help of people like Rancho Santa Fe resident Dagmar Helgager and her friends there’s a chance San Pasqual Academy, which provides a home and a school for San Diego County foster children, might not be what it is today – a model for helping young people on the road to success.
Helgager, a mother of three, readily admits she has a soft spot for kids in their teen years, which she describes as “extra challenging years even under the best of circumstance.”
Mix in being a teen in the county’s foster care system and the chances of meeting those challenges take a significant dip.
Although she trained to be a high school teacher, Helgager’s career took a turn towards the insurance business in the Chicago area, where she grew up. She and her husband James, an orthopedic surgeon, moved to Leucadia in 1978 when he finished his residency and moved to Ranch Santa Fe in 1987 when they outgrew their house there.
She became friends with Joan Scott and a group of women she “admired and enjoyed” who were involved with a number of community activities.
As Helgager tells the story, one night Scott attended a dinner with her father, who was friends with the head of New Alternatives Inc., the nonprofit that provides programs and services for foster and probation youth and now runs the residential services at San Pasqual Academy. While at the event, they discussed concerns about the state of the foster system being voiced by James Milliken, then presiding judge of the Juvenile Court and still a member of the advisory board.
“Judge Milliken had watched kids go through the revolving door,” Helgager said, noting he was working with Supervisors Greg Cox and Ron Roberts and people from the county’s Health and Human Services Agency to come up with alternatives for teens who frequently are placed in multiple homes and often change schools, disrupting their already precarious lives.
The county had previously bought a boarding school campus from the Seventh Day Adventist Church and was in the process of renovating it around the needs of an academy program to change the course for some of these children.
Helgager said when Scott heard about the concept that night in 1999 she realized the organizers needed help to get it moving. So Scott rounded up a group of friends and came up with what is now Friends of San Pasqual Academy to lend support, drafting Helgager, with her financial skills, to serve as treasurer.
“The timing was right,” Helgager said. “My three children (all Torrey Pines High graduates) were winding down from high school and I was entering the empty nest phase.”
Sixteen years later, Scott and most of the original committee are still involved. They get great community support, she said, because “people like the idea of helping foster kids and they know we will spend their money wisely.”
Today, more than 100 teens live at the academy, attend high school and learn independent living skills as they prepare for jobs, trade schools or college. Some attend community colleges and a few are accepted to four-year schools. This year, one of the grads was accepted by UCLA, and, with a scholarship from the Friends, she studied in Peru last year.
The academy – known as SPA – opened in October 2001. It provides family-style housing adjoined by a high school campus. There’s a cafeteria, technology and career center, auditorium, sports fields, a gym, swimming pool, health and wellness center, and a day rehabilitation clinic for those needing specialized services. While the school is only for ninth- through 12th-graders, some of their middle-school-aged siblings are allowed to live on campus while attending nearby schools.
On top of that, there’s alumni housing on campus which gives kids an option if they need housing during college breaks when their dorms are closed or while going to school or working before they get a place of their own.
Knowing that the county’s funds for the program were limited, when the Friends of SPA started, Helgager said, “We just wanted to help them have a prom. We collected dresses, taught them to make corsages and threw in some money to cover expenses. It just grew from there and now the kids have the prom off campus like other high schools.”
Initially there were no yearbooks, sports or music programs, but through fundraisers such as the Friends’ annual golf tournament that was held this year on April 13 at Santaluz, they have been able to expand extracurricular options for SPA youth.
“It is important to note that the teens at the Academy are there by choice,” Helgager said. “In many cases they give up living situations under which they could enjoy less supervision and fewer academic demands. We are offering carrots with material things, fun activities and opportunities they may not otherwise have.”
Besides pitching in at prom time, the Friends also host a holiday party for the kids, a “Shop Til You Drop” Day” where students can pick up school supplies or clothing that’s been donated, and twice yearly Sports Award Days. They also fund letter jackets for those who earn them, support music and technology programs, and even provide birthday cakes, gifts and cards for each student.
Once kids leave the academy, they can get assistance with college books and college scholarships.
Asked if there were any special moments that made her time as a Friends volunteer special, Helgager paused.
“That’s hard to answer. I enjoy it when I am able to interact directly with the kids,” she said.
And then she recalled taking four junior high boys who live at SPA shopping for school supplies and “cool shoes to help them fit in.”
Sometimes, she added, the youngsters who live at SPA but attend the local middle school aren’t always accepted, so that was a big moment for them.
“It was so great. I thoroughly enjoyed running around the North County mall with them.”
In talking about the program, Helgager said, “I know from raising my own three that young people can struggle to get launched and it is so rewarding when these especially vulnerable kids succeed. Not all of them do succeed but I believe that our efforts often make a difference.”
For more information, visit www.friendsofsanpasqualacademy.org.