A sense of community
LA RED SHIELD DIRECTOR IRENE DE ANDA LEWIS
More than 4,000 neighborhood youth and adults enjoy programs at the center, which occupies nearly half a city block and contains a sports field, swimming pool, gymnasium, and learning center. Next door, a new building will soon house a library and computer center, ballet academy, and more.
By Sue Schumann Warner –
It’s Thursday afternoon, and the computer lab and learning center is humming at The Salvation Army’s Los Angeles Red Shield Youth and Community Center as groups of enthusiastic 8-to 10-year-olds practice computer skills, play learning games, and do their math and English homework.
Nine-year-old Rosa, a regular at the center and a student in the ‘On Track’ program, is laughing and chatting with girlfriends. She looks up when asked how she likes the center, and her brown eyes grow serious. “This is better than playing on the street,” she says. “Maybe you could get killed there. This is a safe place. It feels good to be here.”
Red Shield Executive Director Irene De Anda Lewis smiles and agrees. “It’s an oasis here–a haven.” She explains: “I find myself walking through the building when it’s packed–we’ll have around 330 kids in the afternoon–I’ll look at the ballet class, the gym, the pool, and I’ll say what would the kids do without the Red Shield? Here, they have people who care, they learn new things, they get physical exercise, they learn that God loves them…I see kids running, swimming, playing. Parents tell me all the time how thankful they are for the center.”
Located in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, this inner-city neighborhood is no stranger to illiteracy, joblessness, drugs, and crime. Its police division, the Rampart, was recently involved in a corruption scandal. Its families are among the poorest in LA County; most are Latino or Korean immigrants. Statistics report the neighborhood is the most densely populated West of the Mississippi. Gangs and the sound of gunshots are a part of daily life.
Irene, however, has found a small town here. “It feels like a community. People live close together, they know each other. I walk down the street and I know the barber, the shoe repair man, the dry cleaner.”
Respect of community leaders
In her nine years at the Red Shield, Irene has worked hard to integrate the center into the fabric of this “small town” called Pico-Union. In doing so, she’s become a part of that fabric herself. A board member and participant in a score of community organizations, she has earned the respect of the city’s spiritual and political leaders.
In commenting on a number of special community programs, Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks had this to say about Lewis: “Irene De Anda Lewis’ vociferous efforts in the Pico-Union community have earned her the distinction of directing one of the most successful youth programs in Southern California.” He also noted her work with the Red Shield has resulted in the center being a safe haven from violence for many children.
“Irene has been involved as a community activist to improve the whole community,” said Father John S. Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral. “She is an individual who sees beyond her job description and realizes success in this community must be of all, not just one program.”
He commended the work of the Red Shield, saying more facilities like it are needed in the neighborhood which provide activities that challenge the body, heart and soul.
Nearby Angelica Lutheran Church was the site of a recent monthly meeting of the Coalition to Improve the Quality of Life in the Rampart Division, where Irene joins community activists who meet with city officials to monitor and lobby for health, safety and quality of life issues in Pico Union. When a representative of the Mayor’s office reported there was “a donor who wants to partner with a nonprofit organization to build a play area in a ‘kid rich, park poor’ place” and was anyone interested? Irene–an active and articulate spokesperson for the Red Shield–responded quickly. The key to success, she later said, “is connections to the community.”
Community involvement is a priority for Irene. “We have a responsibility to partner with the community, to understand its needs,” she says. “Whenever issues affect Pico Union, they affect the Red Shield as well.”
To that end, she encourages community use of the Red Shield for meetings, programs, and services if need-ed. The Pico-Union Neighborhood Watch group, for example, uses the building for meetings since President Yasmin Corona operates the group out of her home. “If Yasmin needs to send a fax or make a copy, she is always welcome to do it at the Red Shield,” says Irene.
The Red Shield has also been supportive of the nearby Westlake Neighborhood Watch group, headed by President Bertha Wooldridge, by providing assistance when needed, and joining them in community events. That policy has paid dividends for all. The group now has 15 block captains, and Wooldridge reports that where once the streets were not safe, plagued with homeless, gangs, muggings and prostitution, “now a husband can drop his wife and kids off at the grocery story and sit and read his newspaper by his car. There is tranquillity.”
“To do a four-star program, you have to be willing to partner. The Salvation Army is willing to work hand-in-hand with the community,” says Lewis.
The On-Track program–which is held at the Red Shield in partnership with Tenth Street Elementary School, located just across the street, and Berendo Middle School–is one of many joint projects conducted by the center and the community. Started in 1993, three other Salvation Army centers in Southern California now offer On-Track programs.
On-Track serves neighborhood students year round during their four-week or eight-week school vacation cycles. It operates Monday through Friday, from 9 am to 3 pm, 50 weeks during the year, with lunch provided by the Tenth Street Elementary School. An average of 300 students (in grades 4 and 5 through middle school) participate each year.
Children ages 6-12 are referred to the program by administrative or teaching staff who identify them as at higher than average risk of delinquency, school failure, and other negative behaviors. In exchange for their children’s free enrollment in the program, parents must participate in a parenting program that skills in creating a healthy marriage, budget planning, managing anger, and domestic violence. The classes emphasize strengthening families, preventing participation by their children in gang involvement, and supporting school success.
“Under the Red Shield’s leadership, Berendo Middle School youth have increased their school attendance, improved their academic achievement, maintained a low middle school drop-out rate (1.42%) and improved their ability to manage anger and conflict,” says Berendo Middle School Principal Esther Rivera. “Berendo Middle School families have improved their parent-youth relationships and their family stability.”
PARTNERING–Irene De Anda Lewis joins (back row l-r) Officer Larry Covington, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, Officer Henry Covarrubis, Dan Doyle, Officer Marie Grebinski, and (front) Police Activities League and Red Shield youth, with Dodger player, at Dodger Stadium.
Partnering with LAPD
Irene has found value in building a relationship with police officers and officials in the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Through her serving on the board of the Police Activities League Rampart Community Youth Center, for example, a partnership with the Rampart youth center has grown to the place where Rampart youth center members now travel with police officers to the Red Shield for a number of activities. In turn, Red Shield youth participate in some Rampart youth programs “It’s been wonderful to have officers involved with the kids,” said Irene. “It’s really made a difference.”
“Without the Red Shield, we wouldn’t exist,” said Officer Larry Covington, director of the Rampart youth center. “They offer a lot of programs we can use, like the gymnasium and the pool. We work together well.” He adds that due to rivalries in gang territories, youth from the Westside, where his youth program is located (on the north end of MacArthur Park), wouldn’t normally venture to the Red Shield.
“There is a very close working relationship between the Rampart Police personnel and the staff of the Red Shield,” said former Rampart area commanding officer Captain Robert Hansohn. “The LAPD and particularly Rampart Police personnel fully support and appreciate the Red Shield’s good work.”
Partnering with other nonprofits has enabled the Red Shield to offer an assortment of quality programs. The Karate Club, for example, operates three days a week , with more than 120 individuals participating in the nationally recognized program. Most are between 14 and 19 years old. The group has earned several state and local titles; in 1997 one student traveled to Peru to represent the USA team at an international tournament.
More than 300 children participate in a Drama Academy taught by a professional drama teacher with Children’s Theatre Playhouse who works with Red Shield youth two hours per day, four days a week. “Young children are involved in every aspect of a production,” notes Irene, “from staging, make-up, costuming and improvisation to acting, lighting, sound and video taping.”
In addition, the Red Shield’s sports program includes basketball, volleyball, and soccer leagues in collaboration with other community youth centers; and in-house leagues and competitions in softball, field hockey, water polo and flag football.
On Tuesday afternoons, nearly 250 youth attend Sunday school at the center.
Lewis is quick to credit staff and volunteers for the success of the Red Shield. “I’m just one part of a big picture, she said. “I really appreciate the staff here. It’s all about all of us together–we’re a family.”
She proudly points out that the volunteers and staff of 22 full-and part-time employees have a low turn-over rate, with some serving for 15, 17, 20–even 27 years, and notes that there are kids who went through the programs and now volunteer themselves. “I love to see it when they grow up and give back.”
One such volunteer is 17-year-old Sandra Olmedo, who attended the Red Shield as a youth. No longer living in the neighborhood, her mother has driven her an hour each way–every day this summer–to help at the center where she lifeguards, teaches aerobics, and helps on the playground. “It felt like family here when I was a child. Everyone cared about us. I want to give back what they gave to me,” Sandra said. Her 19-year-old brother Alirio also volunteers.
The strength of the Red Shield lies not only in the staff and volunteers, in community connections, and in the determination of Irene De Anda Lewis–it lies in an extended family of supporters that has evolved over the years. That “family” helps keep the doors open, offering financial and practical support.
Operating quality programs doesn’t come cheap, even in Pico-Union. With a yearly budget of $750,000 ($117,000 of which comes from Salvation Army divisional appropriations), the Red Shield depends on the United Way, foundations, city funding, and corporate and individual donors–and partnering–to make up the difference.
The Squires Club, for example, has been a strong supporter of the center for many years, contributing thousands of dollars. “Without the Squires Club, our programs would have a difficult time providing support to the community,” said Lewis.
One highly visible Red Shield supporter is TV personality Huell Howser, whose “California Gold” television program on KCET has featured the Red Shield. Howser also emceed the center’s 50th anniversary celebration this spring. “I came to visit the Red Shield eight years ago, and I haven’t been able to get this place out of my head and heart,” he said.
In 1992, just after the Los Angeles riots, Howser filmed a segment on the center (which has now aired 25 times). In 1997, a Jewish gentleman living in San Louis Obispo, Calif., saw the program and offered to help the Red Shield. That led to his donating funds to purchase the lot next door, where construction is now underway for a new building. He has given a total of $550,000 to support both the expansion project and a new music and arts education program.
“He became financially secure in Chicago,” says Lewis, “and wanted to help the Army there as well. He has donated $3 million for the construction of a Red Shield Youth Center in an area of the city in need of such a program.”
All that as the result of a TV broadcast…and a quality program that is touching the lives of inner-city kids…and an executive director who believes that the Red Shield is part of the fabric of a “small town” called Pico-Union.