Category Archives: Employee Profile

Oscar Tostado: Building academic success through mariachi

Mariachi youth

Maintenance Manager Oscar Tostado has been with Omnitrans since October 1985.

Oscar Tostado“I started working in transit right off the bat. When I was graduating from a national tech school, the instructor pulled the top three students in the class and asked us if we would be interested in going to work for Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) in Los Angeles. At the time I think I was making around $6.50 an hour, and he said that as an apprentice we would start off earning $9 plus change. It was astronomical money for me at that time, so I said yes sir!” Tostado laughs. “It was my first real job.  I worked as a mechanic and moved on up the line there. Right around the time I was able to attain a supervisor position, I accepted a job with Omnitrans. It’s been a good career for me.”

Tostado is also the director of Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy. The mission of this non-profit organization is to provide a course of study that will challenge and enhance the student’s ability to read music, master their instruments and enhance stage presence through the art of performing mariachi music.

Oscar Tostado and Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

A sports athlete himself, Tostado became first became interested in music and the performing arts when his son was in school.

“As a kid I was a total football jock—it was always sports, sports, sports with me,” he laughed. “My mom wanted me to play music. I did learn to play piano and a little on the saxophone, but I fought her tooth and nail every step of the way.  All I wanted to do was play football. Later, my son wanted to follow in my footsteps but he was all thumbs when it came to playing sports.  Instead, he got into music, singing and theater arts.”

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

“When my son was in grammar school, he started playing in a mariachi group made up of about 40 kids. Now, typically, mariachi is taught by ear. In Hispanic families you are taught to pick up the guitar, put your fingers here, strum this way, strum that way, never once learning how to read music. So these instructors would teach these kids to play by ear. Only about five of them actually learned how to read music. Over time, we tracked all the children in the group and noticed a weird little statistic that I found interesting.

“We found that the kids that learned how to read music, play music, sing and dance would go on to college/universities. The ones that did not were always struggling with school and struggling to stay in the arts program. Eventually they decided not to continue their education but to make a living at some minimum wage job. There are studies that have shown that kids who play instruments and learn how to read music, perform better at school for some reason. It helps them develop abstract reasoning for math and the sciences. It’s great exercise for your brain.”

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

As the years went by, Tostado thought he would love to do a mariachi band again and reach out to underprivileged kids. But rather than having the children learn by ear, they would be taught to read music first. He believed that if these kids could be taught to read music, they would be able to advance themselves in school.  Soon he would have the opportunity to put that theory to the test.

In 2006 he became involved in the Sinfonia Mexicana and was invited to join its Board of Directors. The Sinfonia regularly performed cultural music, classical and Hispanic music at the California Theater. However, most of the musicians were older people. The Board decided they would like to reach out to the youth in the community. Tostado saw a chance to implement his ideas and the Mariachi Youth Academy was born.

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

He had two immediate hurdles to face. Because he wanted to reach out to kids whose families did not have a lot of money, it was critical to secure grants. The second challenge was finding qualified instructors. At one point he had several mariachi instructors lined up to interview, but none of them showed up once they realized they had to be able to competently read music and teach music theory.

During his time with the Sinfonia Mexicana, Tostado had gotten to know Cindy Shea, owner/founder of the Mariachi Divas. Cindy has a degree in music and her future husband, Alberto “Beto” Jiminez Maeda, was an accomplished composer. When they heard about Tostado’s plans, they were very excited and interested in becoming instructors for the project.

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

“It was fantastic,” he said. “When we were finally able to pull it off, we had this big chunk of kids who all knew how to play music but not how to read it. Beto would get them in line by taking the standard mariachi music and rearranging it so he would know instantly if they were playing by ear or actually reading the notes. It was hard to transition them, but the kids started to develop.”

They put the word out to the community through school flyers and word of mouth. They knew the program would cost each child approximately $60 a month and were able to secure the grants and donations they needed in order to offset the expense.  At first they considered offering the lessons for free, but decided to instead charge $20 per month–$5 per lesson—to ensure the children were personally invested.

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

“The affordability was how we got the buy in from all these underprivileged kids,” explained Tostado. “The other incentive that really got things rolling was that we were also able to buy them uniforms. Just a basic mariachi uniform can run $300-$400 apiece. We wanted to have a carrot to incite the kids to move forward so we had different uniforms for the intermediate group and the advanced performing group that were progressively more elaborate. If you learned to read music and make it to the next level, you would be put into this other group and now you get a fancy $700 uniform. It worked.”

Today the Academy currently has seventy five students that attend grade school through high schools from San Bernardino, Rialto, Fontana, Colton, Bloomington, Yucaipa, Riverside, Oak Hills, Phelan, Hesperia and Los Angeles. We have classes for beginners, intermediate, advance and performing level students. The musical expertise and stage presence these young musicians have gained through their experience at the Academy have given them the poise, skill, discipline and confidence to pursue their dreams through higher education.

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

Performing level students performing with the Best Mariachi in the World, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, at the California Theater.

“At every level the directors, instructors and Board Members continually stress the importance of the continued education of our students,” said Tostado. “We have even established a scholarship fund and workshops to help those who are college bound. The Academy has many success great stories. Many Academy students are first generation college students. Watching these young people transform and realize their true potential is simply incredible. I am so proud of what they have accomplished.”

You can read and learn more about the Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy on:

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

James Plasencia: coach operator, musician & artist

james plasencia on bus

Highland resident James Plasencia has been a coach operator with Omnitrans for 6 years. Prior to that, he worked for a year at Foothill Transit where he received his training.

“I like driving the bus, then setting it down in the yard at the end of the day and being done. I’ve had a lot of other jobs where you took work home with you and could never really let go of it. And I like being outdoors. Prior to working for Foothill, I was working for an insurance company in a cubicle with piles of files stacked up. As soon as I’d get rid of one stack of files, they would come and drop off another. And I would have to make notes to call people the next day, so I would take work home with me.”

“As a coach operator, the pay is also a lot better. Without a college degree, it’s hard to find a job where you make that kind of money. So I am very appreciative of that. When I’m out there, I see homeless people and other people who aren’t doing as well and I feel really fortunate to have a job like this. Basically if you can follow the rules, drive the bus, don’t have any accidents and treat people politely, you’re good. I say hi to everybody whether they respond or not. And most of the time when passengers leave my bus they say thanks. Your demeanor has a lot to do with how people react to you.”

Omnitrans sbX coach operator James Plasencia

“I enjoy being an sbX driver, and it’s been great to be part of the first wave of drivers doing this. It’s one of the better routes I’ve had. Everybody who comes in is impressed with the bus itself—they like the whole system. They’re interested in the middle lanes and looking at the lights and the station art. We get a lot of people who are sort of testing it out and want to ride from one end of the corridor and back again. They want to see if it fits their routine.”

His passengers would never suspect that, in his private life, James is also a talented musician and artist.

“Eddie Van Halen was my big inspiration,” he laughs. “I started playing guitar when I was 14. My dad and my uncle are both musicians. My dad would try to show me some chords, but they just weren’t edgy enough, you know? But I learned them. Then I heard Van Halen and I was like ‘That’s guitar?’ That’s that instrument? Okay now I’m interested.’”

That inspired James to take what his dad had taught him, practice and bring it to the next level. Later he attended The Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood to study music.

“I was really serious. I still am serious. I mean I don’t pick it up as much, but I’m always thinking about music and listening to bands. My dream was to be a studio musician. But it’s so hard, you know? There is just so much competition. Now I do mainly acoustic, but I get a lot of good feedback about my playing. I think I’m pretty strong at it.”

Painting by artist James Placensia

Surprisingly, it was actually art that came easiest to James. Adults first noticed his talent when he was around 7-years-old.

“In second or third grade, the teacher wanted us to draw our shoes,” James said. “So we had them up on our desks, and we were drawing them. She was really impressed with mine because it had shadows and all the little scuff marks—there was dimension to it. There was something there that was different. She even told my mom that she needed to think about putting me in art school. But my mom didn’t pursue it. So sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had been able to go to art school. That would have been pretty cool. Imagine what you could do if you had had the right education and been exposed to all those different mediums. It’s harder as an adult because now you’re trying to play catch up. You’re trying to learn it on the fly between work and family.”

sugar skulls

“I work a lot with acrylics because I feel I have more control over what I’m doing. Because I’m self-taught, I don’t really know the techniques. I just know what works best for me. If I can see it in my head and use acrylics to paint it, I know I can get close.”

art  by JP Studios

For the longest time I never considered myself an artist. People would always use that word with me and I’d go ‘I’m not an artist. I just like to draw and paint.’ But they would say things like you know art is expressing yourself. So you are an artist. It’s been hard to get comfortable with that. To me artists are great people who do these major works. I’m not like that. But maybe to be an artist is just to create, you know? You don’t have to know all the terms and techniques. I mean I’d still like to go to school and learn more, but I’ve met creative people who haven’t had any training but I like what they do. Just like musicians. I’ve met some fantastic musicians and when I asked them were they studied, they say they learned to play by ear. I think wow, that’s amazing. They are doing things that are so advanced. It’s the same with art.”

art by JP Studios

James credits his wife for encouraging him to pursue his creative gifts.

“She’s my biggest fan. I told her the other day I should make her my manager because she is always so supportive. She gets on social media and tells everyone about me and gets them to check out my page. Or if I’m doing an art show, she’s promoting that. It helps, and I really appreciate that.”

“When I first met her I was doing the music thing. I told her right off I was going to have to be going to a lot of rehearsals and gigs. She said ‘Oh that’s fine I like music.’ I was like ‘Really? You might have to come with me and help me load stuff.’ She told me ’That’s fine.’ I thought ‘Man, I have to marry this woman!’ And she cooks too! She’s a really good cook.“

James will have some of his art on display at the 5th Annual El Monte Dia de Los Muertos event on Saturday, October 18th from 1:00 p.m. -7:00 p.m. The event takes place at El Monte Valley Mall (along Valley Mall Blvd.) from Lexington Ave to Cleminson St.

You can also view some of James’ art and photos from his studio on his Facebook page.

 - Juno Kughler Carlson
juno.carlson@omnitrans.org 

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Coach Operator shares culture, sports & life lessons

Omnitrans Coach Operator Landru Gaviria

Pasadena resident Landru Gaviria has been a coach operator at Omnitrans for the past 11 years.

Formerly with MTA in Los Angeles, he has honed both his driving and customer service skills by facing some challenging situations.

“I was used to a lot of hostile passengers,” he shrugged smiling. “But I know how to handle that. I simply treat them with respect. I imagine I am taking care of my mother, my sister, my relative. I treat everybody like family. That is the secret you know. Have a good personality and show people you care. This way everybody is happy. They respond to that.”

As Executive Board #1 with the Amalgamated Transit Union, Gaviria is also proud to serve as a Union rep.

Omnitrans West Valley Coach Operators

“It has been a great experience for me because it gives me the opportunity to help the drivers,” he said. “They are my brothers and sisters, and I speak for them with my heart. We are the front line for Omnitrans. I have a good relationship with both drivers and management and have faith that we can come together in a way that benefits everyone. I am happy here and glad that I have a job. Times are hard—not just here, but all over the world.”

Gaviria knows about hard times. He came to the States from Lima, Peru 41 years ago when he was just 19-years-old and seeking a better life. He found work and married Juanita, the love of his life and a former neighbor from Peru. Together they had three beautiful children.

Landru and Juanita Gaviria

Landru and Juanita Gaviria

Gaviria’s personal drive, his love of community and his passion for soccer continued to grow and eventually led to an unexpected opportunity as a columnist with a Peruvian newspaper.

“I was a semi-pro soccer player.” Gaviria explained. “People from Peru over here in Los Angeles know me as a soccer player. One day the editor from the Actualidad newspaper came to me and asked ‘Why don’t you write for us, since everybody knows you?’ I said okay, I’ll take the challenge. I began writing about soccer and, later, about news stories from Peru. Now I am a regular writer for the paper on both topics.”

Gaviria never forgot his roots , He decided to use his soccer connections to help other Peruvian children.  He created a non-profit organization called Los Hijos del Porvenir, which serves children ages 5-11.

Los Hijos del Porvenir - Peruvian soccer stars

“Our goal is to keep the children of Peru away from the streets by giving them a relationship with famous, old-time soccer stars. Each year we travel with these “Old Glory” soccer players to Peru to give the children a time of joy with food and entertainment. We help them with cash and, depending on their health, we provide groceries and medicine. We have minimum support from sponsors for these trips, so me and my wife Juanita finance the expenses.”

The Inka Foundation International of Cultura. Still, Gaviria felt there was more he could do for the community he loved. He became President of a second non-profit called The Inka Foundation International of Cultura. Its mission is to advance global awareness of Andean cultural traditions and knowledge. As part of their work, the foundation assists high school students from low income families who are Peruvian descendants living in the United States. The organization provides small grants to help with textbooks or tuition so they can continue their educational studies.

“For me, as a native Hispanic from Peru, it’s been very important to help the youth in their sports and studies and for my own children to have this example in life. I am so proud of my children,” said Gaviria emotionally. ”My daughter, Michelle Martinez, is a Councilwoman for Altadena and Vice-Chair of the California Republican National Assembly. My son Landru Gaviria studied Economics at UCLA and has his Masters in Business Administration. He has given me three beautiful grandsons and is a dedicated father and husband. My daughter Sholeh Arabia is a Doctor in Psychology and specializes in treating children and young adults with autism. They are all living good lives and helping others, and they say that they have learned this from us. This touches my heart and is my proudest achievement. God gave me this gift, and I am blessed. ”

- Juno Kughler Carlson
juno.carlson@omnitrans.org 

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Coach operator Cecil Stevens: “People matter”

Omnitrans coach operator Cecil StevensIf you ask Omnitrans coach operator Cecil Stevens what matters most to him in his work, he will immediately have an answer for you.

“Customer service is one of the most important parts of the job,” he explains. “A lot of times when you go someplace, people will treat you like you don’t matter or like they’re too busy to help you out. I don’t like that. People matter.”

Formerly one of our Route 8 coach operators, Cecil is now an sbX driver and coach operator instructor. He emphasizes the importance of keeping a good attitude on the job and taking care of your body. He works out 4-5 times a week in the Omnitrans gym.

“It’s easy to get out of shape when you’re driving,” he says. “You’re sitting constantly. It’s important to get out and walk and exercise every day. It helps out a lot. If I don’t do it, I feel the difference right away.”

Working out is not just about fitness for Cecil. He believes it’s also a great way to clear your head and prepare for a day on the road.

“I try to make sure all my passengers have a good bus ride. I always tell them good morning, good night or have a great day. If they seem upset, I ask if they’re alright. I also pay special attention to first time riders and try to find out where they are going so I can help them out. Then, when I see them on the bus again later, I always ask them how their trip went last time,” he chuckles. “They’re always surprised that I remember them. I want everyone to have a good experience.”

- Juno Kughler Carlson
juno.carlson@omnitrans.org

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Omnitrans Employee of the Quarter: sbX dispatcher Robert Avant

Omnitrans sbX dispatcher Robert Avant

Omnitrans Employee of the Quarter Robert Avant is a man of many talents: artist, writer, musician, coach operator, coach operator instructor and relief dispatcher. But with our BRT launch last April, he claimed a new title for himself as the “Maestro” of sbX.

One look at the sbX dispatch monitor, and it’s easy to understand the musical reference. A symphony of 60-foot coaches moves in sequence along the route, carefully guided by the dispatcher to ensure proper rhythm and flow. If the vehicles start to bunch in one area or a gap begins to separate them, the dispatcher must coordinate their movements to bring them back into balance.

Omnitrans Employee of the Quarter Robert Avant

Robert Avant with Director of Operations Diane Caldera

“sbX is based on frequency rather than on time points, and there are many factors that come into play to affect the system,” points out Robert. “Traffic patterns and passenger load can change the timing of a vehicle. A coach operator who is transporting two wheelchair passengers, for example, will need extra time for loading and unloading. Traffic backed up at an intersection or unexpected detours can also cause delays. Every day is something different, but that keeps it interesting.”

Robert’s skills were put to the test during the initial launch of the sbX BRT service, when the system faced several unexpected challenges. The Traffic Signal Prioritization (TSP) system did not work as expected, delaying many articulated coaches along the corridor. In addition, not all Global Positioning Systems (GPS) were functioning correctly. This caused coaches not to appear, or appear inaccurately, on the dispatcher’s corridor map monitor.

Omnitrans sbX dispatcher Robert Avant

This made Robert’s job as sbX dispatcher incredibly difficult. He maintained clear communication with coach operators, field supervisors, management and other departments to keep them apprised of the issues. He worked as best he could with dispatch’s GPS tracking system and radio to locate and track each coach along the corridor. When he identified a delay or coach bunching, he quickly coordinated with Operators to put them back on time to meet the riding public’s expectations.

Robert also helped create a monitoring system within a detailed sbX Dispatch Daily roster form to track and maintain service reliability and to ensure that shift exchanges and meal breaks occurred as expected. Once the system was up and running, Robert quickly and effectively cross-trained other dispatchers on these sbX dispatching procedures, broadening the department’s flexibility and reliability in coverage and increasing efficiency when dealing with unplanned absences, illnesses or emergencies.

Omnitrans Employee of the Quarter Robert Avant

A few members of our wonderful dispatch team: Ed Cooney, Mark Bueche, Robert Avant and Ronnie Davis

“Before this system was put into place, we were trying to track information on seven different forms,” explains Robert. “There was no centralized resource for information. Now everything is recorded in one place so we can quickly see what needs to happen and what availability is at any given time.”

“Robert played an important role in jump starting the sbX system when it went live in April,” says Omnitrans Director of Operations Diane Caldera. “His contributions and problem-solving abilities helped ensure that the sbX service we provide is the sbX service that was advertised. We are so proud to honor him as Employee of the Quarter.”

Omnitrans Employee of the Quarter Robert Avant

Although he loves the variety and demands of dispatch, Robert also enjoys the personal connections he makes as a coach operator instructor. “I like helping people build their confidence and develop their skills. I try to create an atmosphere of trust where they feel comfortable learning. My policy is what happens on the bus during training stays on the bus. I’m not going to yell at anyone or later tell a supervisor that they asked a stupid question. There are no stupid questions.”

Creativity and spirituality are a huge part of Robert’s life. In his private time, he sketches portraits and paints still-life scenes. He’s also working on a self-help book, “Becoming The Best You.”

“I believe any challenge can be overcome,” says Robert. “It just takes dedication, discipline and the desire to succeed.”

Omnitrans sbX dispatcher Robert Avant

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sbX Coach Operator Steven Newton

Omnitrans sbX coach operator Steven Newton

For coach operator Steven Newton, 2014 has been an eventful year: a Valentine’s Day wedding, a new baby—and a new job as an sbX coach operator!

“I’d always wanted to drive the Artic [articulated coach], but I didn’t want to make the 30 mile commute to San Bernardino,” Steven confessed.  “It was my wife who finally made me decide to apply to be an sbX driver.  With our new baby, she needed me home on the weekends.”

omnitrans sbx coach operator steven newtonSo Steven put in for the position. He had been with Omnitrans for 7 years, and for the last two had been working relief shifts 7 days week on the west side. He felt he had a pretty good record but knew there was also a lot of strong competition for those jobs.  When he found out he made the cut, he was excited.

“I like these vehicles a lot better. The turning point radius is really no different from a 40-footer.  They run smooth and command a different respect on the road.  Passengers are pleasant, although with sbX  I don’t have as much interaction with them since they enter from the rear doors.  I just really need to focus on driving. The hardest part of the job is watching for motorists. It’s a very different experience.”

Because all the sbX drivers came in at the ground floor at the same time and shared the same training and experiences, Steven says they’ve become like family. They understand the challenges of the job and support each other and help out wherever they can.

Omnitrans sbX Coach Operator Steven Newton“Most of us see this as the stepping stone to the revitalization of San Bernardino County,” said Steven. “It starts with the City of San Bernardino and will grow as sbX spreads to more areas. I like the long term plan. They want to bridge the Inland Empire to Los Angeles.  To me, that’s the best move you could make because so many people commute from here to LA and vice versa. The train can only do so much. We’ve got the buses that bridge, but that’s a 3-4 hour bus ride as opposed to an express service that could take you right to downtown LA. There could even be something on the 210 that could get you to Pasadena. These are the ideas the company is trying to bring forth. It’s creating more jobs, more opportunity, and more room for promotion.”

Steven says overall passenger reaction to sbX has been positive.

Omnitrans sbX coach operator Steven Newton

“People respect us. A lot feel we are trying to make things better, especially up at the college.  I had some kids get on the bus recently who asked if I could hold off for a moment because they were doing a school project about the sbX and wanted some pictures. I was like, wow. Go ahead. It made me feel good to know that I was a part of their education. We are helping the community. It’s not just about making money. We’re making a difference. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re public servants. We’re supposed to help people who might be less fortunate than others who do have the means, you know. That’s what it’s all about. It may not be perfect. It may not put you in the parking lot, but we’re going to get you where you need to go.”

Steven’s baby boy Ian is now 5-months-old, and he loves being able to devote his weekends to his family.

“It’s a long commute during the week,” he admits. “But I’m so used to it now it just comes and goes. It doesn’t really bother me anymore. Life is blessing me right now and I have a lot to be grateful for.”

- Juno Kughler Carlson
juno.carlson@omnitrans.org

Omnitrans sbX coach operator graduates

Omnitrans sbX coach operator graduates

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Two directors take on expanded roles

Omnitrans Directors Wendy Williams and Marge Ewing

Omnitrans Directors Wendy Williams and Marge Ewing

To increase efficiency and reduce administrative expenses, Omnitrans is eliminating some management positions and consolidating some departments. Marketing and Planning will merge under the leadership of Director Wendy Williams, while Director Marjorie Ewing will steer the combined Human Resources and Safety and Regulatory Compliance departments.

This is not the first time Ewing has headed a cross-functional department. Prior to joining Omnitrans 15 years ago, she was the Manager of HR and Safety & Security for Alumax, an aluminum manufacturing company with more than 500 employees. “It’s a natural marriage of functions,” she explains. “HR works closely with safety because of workman’s comp claims and OSHA regulations. All injuries, both non-industrial and workman’s comp, have safety implications. And most security issues involve some form of employee relations, requiring investigation, discipline and prevention.”

Williams, who has 33 years of professional experience in marketing and communications, has been with Omnitrans since 1991.  She believes that merging two departments so strongly tied to the customer experience simply makes good sense. “The marketing and planning functions have worked closely together through the years, so combining the departments is a good fit. We are focused on moving the agency forward with the ultimate goal of increasing ridership by providing transit options that meet the mobility needs of the San Bernardino Valley.”

Both directors look forward to the new challenges they will be facing in the coming year.

“Our department has several critical items coming up,” said Ewing. “With the recent passage of Federal laws like MAP 21, new safety requirements are being considered nationwide which will require certification of all Safety & Security staff. As charter members of the Transit Mutual Assistance Compact (TransMac), we will also be working with transit agencies throughout southern California to establish formal agreements on how we will provide mutual assistance to each other in the event of an emergency. Other projects include process safety management, the installation of a PA system both at our facilities and at our sbX stations and establishing fare evasion protocols and training for field supervisors.”

Williams’ department will focus on five key areas for fiscal year 2015. “Our goals are to increase ridership, complete the San Bernardino Transit Center, advance the West Valley Connector Project, increase pass sales and revenue and enhance customer satisfaction,” said Williams. “It’s an ambitious list, and I feel lucky to have a seasoned team and four skilled managers who are committed to making it happen.”

- Juno Kughler Carlson
juno.carlson@omnitrans.org

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