COA Gives Kids & Parents a Chance to Be Unabashedly Drug-Free 5

The Community Outreach Alliance (COA) is a local non-profit dedicated to encouraging the brightest possible futures for San Clemente’s youth. It began as a reaction to a rising problem with heroin, which was claiming the lives of several high school students. Pondo Vleisides couldn’t stand it. At the time, the San Clemente native was running Talega Life Church, where he was the Senior Pastor for 10 years. A few years ago, he was being frequently called to speak at funerals for high school students. After catching wind of this increase in teen fatalities, and having one death hit incredibly close to home, Pondo’s magnanimity and decades of working with young people led him to start COA.

“There’s a lot of boredom in life at a young age around here. I had a vision of starting something with activities, but also educating parents and having seminars and symposiums on drug addiction, body image, and depression,” he says.

He began hosting free activity nights on Fridays, in an effort to provide a free, fun, and sober night for young locals. The response was energizing. He had one hundred people every week for a month.

Realizing the impact COA could have if he put everything into it, Pondo left the pulpit, eventually closed the church, and began his mission to get the entire community (regardless of religious and cultural differences) to lock arms and charge forward in preventing drug abuse and addiction. Nearly four years later, COA is something that coats Pondo’s face in a joyful awe whenever he speaks about it. The facilities are spacious, and maintain a sense of comfort, which is also achieved in the warmth of the volunteer staff. They all seem to be proud of what COA’s become—a place that offers outstretched arms to the distraught, the idle, and anyone else who enters the space.

Parents/Guardians can attend BILY (Because I Love You, Tuesdays @7pm), which offers “parent-to-parent support and equips parents with tools to create a peaceful home.” There’s also grief counseling (co-led by Pondo and Nicole Brown-Simpson), Narcotics Anonymous, and the Get Well Group of Heroin Anonymous. Equally as impressive is the complete gamut of activities that COA hosts. They include Music Lessons (piano and guitar), Biking, Tennis Lessons, Fishing, Arts (open mic nights, jam nights, improv comedy), Running/Walking, Gaming, Hiking, Yoga Classes, and Camping. These things are almost entirely made possible by in-kind donations from the community.

“It has just been blessed,” Pondo remarks, graciously.

He noticed an uptick in community involvement after he presented COA at a number of Town Hall meetings, expressing his belief that it could really work. The initial popularity of COA demanded more help from the community—more volunteers, a wider variety of things to do for the kids who were showing up, and more resources. Julie Ragenovich of Sonny’s Restaurant was one of the first to step up and support.

“I love San Clemente, so I just want to make it better,” says Ragenovich, who also gives to Fish for Life, Young Life, Laura’s House, SC Educational Foundation, and Relay for Life.

A few years ago she added “COA Sponsor” to the myriad of other ways she gives back to the town she loves. She says Pondo is a good friend, and she really believes in what he’s doing for the community. She has consistently donated food for the boat trips the kids went on and continues to raise awareness about COA to the community at-large. Because it’s tackling an issue (addiction) that she finds incredibly pertinent.

“It has created an awareness of the problem and brought it to light. A lot of people didn’t know what to do, and [COA] is doing something about it,” says Ragenovich. 

Thankfully, the benevolence doesn’t stop with Ragenovich; others like her have shown their appreciation for San Clemente through in-kind donations. The boat trips Ragenovich mentioned were a donation from Donna Kalez of Dana Wharf, who gives the 60 passenger vessel, bait, and a captain to COA for free every year. Kalez stepped up and told Pondo she wanted to do something. There’s the local superintendent, who has supported the appearance of the COA club at SCHS. Additionally, the SCHS principle allows them to use the tennis courts every Wednesday night, with four professional coaches giving lessons for free. A friend from Pondo’s high school youth group once hosted a bike race, raised $8,000, and promptly took the money to Fullerton Bikes to buy a fleet of bicycles for COA. Fullerton followed the biker’s example and gave him a massive discount on the bikes. Even the Guitar Center on El Toro gave 15 guitars (cases and strings included) for just $2,000. Every year, he sees involvement and sponsorship go up as a result of friends and strangers coming together and rallying behind COA.

“I’ve seen the awareness jump up to where everyone’s teaching their kids…and sharing the things that are happening,” says Pondo.

The name Community Outreach Alliance is apt because it lists the tools that are crucial to giving. Tools that seem to exist in every crevice of this town. The community’s ability to show up, the diligence COA reserves for reaching out and offering a safe and nourishing space, the incredible in-kind gifts donated by community members — all are beautiful manifestations of Pondo’s vision. It fuels him to continue fighting against the sorrow that induced the vision.

“Everybody’s been touched by this— everybody—somewhere, someone’s a user, someone’s depressed, someone’s bullied. So it’s invaluable to have people step up.”

To see a full list of COA events (dates and times included) visit communityoutreachalliance.com