EXCEL Program Helps San Francisco Residents Chart a Better Life

By Leland Kim

Berta Morales shares the joy of her EXCEL graduation with her mother, who supported Berta through her ups and downs. Photo by Cindy Chew

Berta Morales has battled demons most of her life. Born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District to immigrant parents from El Salvador, she admits “going down the wrong path,” experimenting with alcohol and drugs when she was a teenager.

“My mom was working all the time and my dad was away,” she said. “I had no guidance and I did things I shouldn’t have done. I was barely a freshman in high school when this all started.”

Morales struggled for many years. In her 20s she worked as a barista while raising two daughters and a son. Unable to “handle being a grown up,” she kept going back to alcohol.

Her “rock bottom” was three years ago when Child Protective Services (CPS) told her she was not fit to take care of her children.

Berta Morales, left, and Asia Gilmore were chosen by their classmates to give the commencement address at their EXCEL graduation. Photo by Cindy Chew

Felix Hagenimana, EXCEL alumnus, returned to give the keynote address. He will start law school in the fall. Photo by Cindy Chew

“I lost custody. It devastated me. At the time I couldn’t see this happened because of the bad decisions I had made. I just blamed everyone else for my problems.”

Morales checked into a treatment center for women. Some were dealing with mental illness. Others had been broken down – both mentally and physically. “This can’t be a revolving door,” she told herself. “I knew I couldn’t go back.”

Soon after she successfully completed her yearlong treatment program, Morales found the EXCEL (Excellence through Community Engagement and Learning) program, a partnership of UC San Francisco, the City and County of San Francisco and the Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). It is a work-based learning program that uses both classroom and on-the-job training to prepare participants for career path job in the health care sector.

“More than anything else, I experienced tremendous personal growth through the EXCEL program,” Morales said. “I’m not the person I used to be. You have to grow through those challenges to get to where you need to be. Lot of things I resented at the time – the courts, CPS – were blessings in disguise.”

Morales joined 15 of her classmates in the EXCEL program’s graduation ceremony on May 18. Six secured career positions and four secured temporary positions. Eleven UCSF departments hosted EXCEL interns this time around.

“I am proud of our graduates. They worked really hard to get to this point,” said Damon Lew, assistant director of community relations at UCSF, who directs the EXCEL program. “I am also extremely grateful to our partners – JVS, the San Francisco Human Services Agency and various UCSF departments – that have taken our interns under their wings to help them grow as health care professionals.”

The Department of Radiology has been one of the most consistent supporters of the EXCEL program since its inception.

“That spirit of helping people grow starts with our leadership. From Kathy Knoerl to Tammy Scott to Phyllis Farrar, they all embody that sense of selflessness and generosity,” said Tremaine Thomas, a front desk supervisor at the Department of Radiology. “It’s about growing and developing people and constantly being aware of that, not only in your private life but bringing that in your professional life as well. These values are at the root of what makes UCSF so special.”

Thomas believes in the EXCEL program and its mission because he has had people believe in him along the way, even during times when he didn’t believe in himself.

“So the least I can do is give back,” he said. “I didn’t get to where I am by just having a positive energy.  I’m grateful to my mentors. That’s why I’m paying it all the way forward.”

Damon Lew, assistant director of community relations at UCSF, who directs the EXCEL program, tries to teach Asia Gilmore's daughter how to do the fist bump. Photo by Cindy Chew

L'ree Brown, left, and Tremaine Thomas were given orchids as a symbolic gesture of gratitude. Their departments have helped the EXCEL program grow over the years. Photo by Cindy Chew

Another person who understands the value of the EXCEL program is Felix Hagenimana, an EXCEL alumnus who served as keynote speaker during the graduation ceremony. An immigrant from Rwanda, he discovered EXCEL as he was adjusting to life in the United States. He gravitated toward health care since he enjoys helping people.

“My personal philosophy is that our lives don’t really belong to us; they belong to people who need our help desperately,” he said. “As long as you’re trying, there are people out there who will help you, encourage you and support you along the way. That has been my guiding principle and I trust in the goodness of people. And that’s what the EXCEL program is all about.”

In the fall, Hagenimana will move to the East Coast to start law school.

“Since I’ve been working in health care as an interpreter, I came to see the struggles of people trying to understand the laws here,” he said. “Because I speak four languages, I could take advantage of the things I have been given. Being able to understand the things people are going through, and since I have gone through those challenges myself, I thought law school would be the best way for me to help others.”

For many in the EXCEL program, they learn much more than job skills. They learn to take control of their lives and chart a new destiny, no matter how bleak their current circumstances may be.

“Don’t ever lose hope,” said Morales, who recently regained custody of her children. “Always, always believe there is something better and you can be someone better. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“Tear down the wall of pride. There’s help out there and there’s a much better life on the other side of addiction.”

UCSF departments or groups that want to host an EXCEL intern in the next cycle or learn more about the program, please contact Damon Lew ([email protected]).

For more internal-facing stories from the UCSF community, please visit Pulse of UCSF.

EXCEL graduates enjoy their moment at Genentech Hall on May 18. Six secured career positions and four secured temporary positions. Eleven UCSF departments hosted EXCEL interns this time around. Photo by Cindy Chew


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