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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

LEGACY Youth Project Heartwork in the Napa Valley

Imagine a Napa Valley where all students have the opportunity to thrive, be joyful and develop as young leaders who continue giving back to our community. This is the vision of LEGACY Youth Project.

“The LEGACY Youth Project provides a supportive place to engage students who have been institutionally marginalized by lack of a culturally responsive education,” said Ms. Gomez-Pelayo. “Our students carry the stigma that they are ‘bad’, because that’s what they’ve been told their whole lives.”

“Our students think they got in to our program because they’re bad,” explained Mr. Hagedorn. “That’s the first two days. By day three, they say, ‘Oh, I like this! What else are we going to do?’”

This is true for Hazucena Corona, who was accepted into the LEGACY Youth Project last August when she transferred from St. Helena High School to start eleventh grade at Vintage.

“LEGACY was actually my third choice. I thought it was for bad kids and I don’t belong in there,” said Ms. Corona. “But the other students took me in, and I felt at home once I started talking about my history. It was a blessing in disguise. They don’t just help you with your school work, if you have something you’re passionate about, they help you nurture that.”

In March 2019, Ms. Corona and her peers facilitated a workshop at the Praxis Youth Organizing Conference in Tucson, Arizona. Their workshop presented the counternarrative of Napa: how people see our valley, and how it is actually experienced by the people that live here.

“Coming into this class, I didn’t know that my voice mattered,” Ms. Corona said. “It helps me use my voice for the better.”

The LEGACY Youth Project is an Ethnic Studies and social justice leadership program committed to the healing, transformation, and liberation of Napa Valley youth. Through their “Heartwork”, they cultivate humanizing opportunities for their “scholar warriors” to lead, rejoice and thrive. LEGACY’s holistic program model, referred to as “Heartwork Pedagogy”, consists of eight interconnected components that meet the unique needs of students and their families including: 1) Ethnic Studies Curriculum, 2) Academic Achievement, 3) College & Career Readiness, 4) Character Development, 5) Civic Engagement, 6) Fem/Mentorship, 7) Family Engagement and 8) Wellness and Wrap-around Services. Culturally responsive pedagogy is the key ingredient to the success of the LEGACY Youth Project because it promotes academic engagement through cultural understanding, authentic connections, sense of belonging, self-empowerment and diversity.

As an Ethnic Studies Professor, Mr. Hagedorn, together with Vintage High School’s Napa Police Resource Officer, Omar Salem, approached Jennifer Stewart at the Napa County Office of Education in 2012 with a project proposal. Their idea was to positively impact young men at Vintage by getting them engaged through talking about their legacies in life and holding them accountable to themselves and others.

Ms. Stewart said, “Our pre- and post-testing in that first year was through the roof. They were engaged, their GPAs soared, and their discipline and truancy issues dropped significantly. LEGACY’s ‘wrap-around’ approach was working.” In 2014, Ms. Stewart became the Executive Director of the Napa Valley Education Foundation, which now acts as LEGACY’s fiscal agent. “I’m constantly inspired by the work of LEGACY,” she said. “They show young adults that there isn’t just one path ahead of them. How amazing must it be to be a teen hearing that there are many paths in life, and that they are in charge of their own legacy?

Founders knew an after-school program was not the right fit to be responsive to the complex needs of the students. Mr. Hagedorn recommended an academic course be created to not only ensure consistent participation, but to also affirm that this coursework mattered as much as their math or science classes. Now, LEGACY Youth Project is integrated into classroom instruction at Napa Valley Language Academy, Redwood Middle, Silverado Middle, Harvest Middle, and Vintage High. Students self-enroll or are referred by school counselors, teachers, administration, or parent advocacy. Currently, the LEGACY Youth Project serves 190 students through seven academic course credit classes available within the Napa Valley Unified School District. As a pathway program, LEGACY aims to work with students starting in elementary school all the way through high school graduation.

The students LEGACY serves face intersected barriers and adverse challenges in their educational and personal lives including poverty or low socio-economic backgrounds, English language learners or low proficiency in English, single-parent homes, mixed immigration status families, domestic violence, substance or drug abuse, mental health symptoms/illnesses, or lack of positive role models in their lives. Academically, students enter the program with a range between 0.1 - 2.0 Grade Point Average (GPA). Two primary identifiers that all of the students bring to the program are educational disengagement and marginalization from their school, home, or community.

Over the past six years, the LEGACY Youth Project’s success has helped the Napa Valley Unified School District close their achievement gap among students of color, increase educational opportunity and create social transformation by reducing educational disengagement, social isolation, gang participation, substance abuse, and community marginalization. To date, LEGACY has inspired more than 500 students to take charge of their lives by improving their school behavior, excelling academically (75% increase their GPA), graduating high school (100% to date have graduated), and attending college (91% enroll into community college).

Every year, the LEGACY Youth Project has an annual fundraising goal of $30,000 to support extracurricular activities, including student trips to the Praxis Conference and university campus visits in Southern California. Ms. Stewart said, “The best way to show your support for LEGACY Youth Project is to invest in it. Any amount helps!” To donate online, visit

Ms. Gomez-Pelayo shared her dream for LEGACY youth: “I would love to see some of our students be my boss someday, that they lead our community with all of us in mind.”


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