National Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to recognize the contributions made by Hispanic and Latino Americans. It's a time to celebrate their heritage and culture while recognizing their presence and influence in the United States. Hispanic Heritage Month, whose roots go back to 1968, begins each year on September 15, the anniversary of independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico, Chile and Belize also celebrate their independence days during this period and Columbus Day (Da de la Raza) is October 12.
James "Jim" Oftedal
James Oftedal admits he had his struggles as a child and hung out with the wrong crowd near his Southeast Fresno neighborhood. Oftedal said, "I got in trouble with the police. I got in trouble with teachers, the principal, at home, with everybody. I was pretty much a throw away kid." He spent time at juvenile hall but he says the one person who never gave up on him was his mother. He says her love was unconditional. Upon entering Roosevelt High School he started to turn things around with the help of his athletic coaches who were his mentors. As a student at Fresno City College, Oftedal found out about the U.S. Forest Service. At the age of 19, he learned he didn't have to be tough in the great outdoors. He could be himself. Even though he was in a different element, he found peace working in the woods and it was life-changing. Oftedal said, "It was like a sanctuary. It was peaceful. It was spiritual. I was able to learn about a whole different life. It gave me the opportunity to see where my life was headed and what I needed to do to change to become a productive citizen. I found that ah ha moment."
Oftedal went on to help youth find opportunities within the forest industry. He was instrumental in helping establish the Central California Consortium and served as its director for 18 years. The program has received local, regional, and national recognition including two Chief's Honor Awards for Workforce Diversity and Promoting Recreation.
Oftedal is now the Region 5 Outreach, Recruitment & Workforce Diversity (OR&WD) Program Manager for the U.S. Forest Service. He oversees the California Consortium, Recruiters, and the Mentoring Program. He serves as a regional and national advisor regarding Cultural Transformation, Outreach and Recruitment, Youth Engagement, and Workforce Diversity. He created the Generation Green program; a K through 12 minority environmental education program. He provides leadership and employment opportunities to underserved students, which lead to natural resources related careers. He also develops strategies to increase workforce diversity via outreach, recruitment, and supportive services. As a result of his hard work and dedication which spans over 36 years, he has helped countless diverse students gain temporary and permanent careers with the agency. Many of the students are from Latino and Hmong farm working families. Generation Green students are going from picking fruit in the fields to picking careers within the agency.
James states, "We've been focusing on green jobs before it was cool! Through grassroots efforts, we're building our future natural resource leaders and many are bilingual. I always say that no matter what color you are or how much money you make, we can all agree that we need clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. With increasing minority demographics, it is critical that we teach our communities to conserve and preserve. Through our internship opportunities, 100% of participants are embracing their roles as good stewards of the land. We just celebrated 20 years of bringing in diversity through our California Consortium and Generation Green programs. The best part has been seeing our youth reach their potential and rise in their careers. There's many success stories! They started as our interns, but they are now deputy directors, regional staff leaders, program directors, lead engineers and more."
James has successfully dedicated his career to serving as bridge to connect the agency with traditionally underserved communities. He is an agency leader, a community partner, and a mentor to many. Many of the students refer to him as "Padrino". He passionately shares the Forest Service mission, the importance of being a good steward of the land, and works diligently to make the Forest Service the employer of choice among diverse committees. He has received awards on a national, regional, and local level; including multiple Chief's awards, a USDA Unsung Hero Award, a local Hispanic Hero award, and the Key to the City of Orange Cove. He also served as a keynote speaker for Hispanic Heritage month in Washington D.C.
Oftedal recently visited Shaver Lake and breathed in the fresh air. He said, "It's Disneyland every day in the forest."
Oftedal lives in Fresno with his wife Lupe. They have two daughters.
Additional source: U.S. Forestry Service