Breaking the Cycle
The Salvation Army Siemon Youth and Community Center is an outlet for kids in South Los Angeles.
By Chadwick Phillips –
Between 1999 and 2012, the percent of Los Angeles County gang-related homicides rose almost 40 percent. Youth violence is of particular concern in South Los Angeles and so The Salvation Army’s Siemon Youth and Community Center is there too.
“Our mission is to impact the community through education, technology, sports, and also helping families with emergency assistance,” said Executive Director Mortimer Jones, who played a key role in opening the center in 2003. “Overall, our mission is to take a holistic approach to meeting someone’s needs.”
The center houses a licensed child care center, gym and weight room, arts and crafts room, computer center, classroom, dance and performing arts studio, photo lab, and a library. Through its Family Services office, it offers living assistance to low-income families as well as emergency assistance—food, clothing, lodging, local transportation, rental assistance, utility assistance and crisis counseling.
“I’ve learned that you have to listen to the community and those that you are serving and then design programs in order to tailor to the communities needs,” Jones said. “Communities have their own unique personalities and in turn their own unique needs.”
One of the center’s biggest goals is to extricate teens from the cycle of violence, starting when they’re young.
A licensed Child Care Center on site provides a safe and caring environment for over 70 children from infancy through five years while after school programs give school-age children the opportunity to explore their talents in sports, art, and music.
“Our academics and tutoring programs are huge,” Jones said. “Although they would like to, many of our families can’t help because of the language barrier, they have two or three jobs, or they just don’t know how to, so our volunteers work one-on-one with children to provide homework help.”
Jones said he believes the center has been successful because the people who are providing the service, the volunteers and employees, are passionate about making a difference. “We are not just showing up to work; it’s not just a job,” he said. “This is something we are passionate about and we will go above and beyond to make a difference in an individual’s life.”
Born into poverty, Armstead grew up in one of the toughest South L.A. neighborhoods surrounded by drug dealing, drug addiction, and gang life. By the time he was in the seventh grade he had fallen into the stereotype of a “gang-banger” and was involved with dealing drugs on the street.
“Growing up in a community where it’s gang infested and crime ridden, you don’t really see those individuals as negative influences. That’s all I knew. So growing up I thought those guys were cool,” Armstead said. “As a young teenager, seeing those people in my neighborhood selling drugs was what I was used to.”
As a junior high student, Armstead wasn’t doing well in school and decided he needed a way to stay free of the gangs.
“As I started to mature and go to The Salvation Army every day, I started to become more open minded and I started to really see that the people in my neighborhood were not really going anywhere,” he said. “The individuals who I looked up to were bad influences. I didn’t see it that way at the time, but as I reflect on it, those people were on a path that was going nowhere in life and I wanted more. I didn’t want to fight every day or to sell drugs.”
When Armstead entered the program, he crossed paths with youth director Andre Patterson. Instead of seeing Armstead as a teenager on his way to being a gangster, Patterson saw a boy who had the potential to grow into a man.
“Before The Salvation Army, I had one option and that was to become like the individuals before me. The Salvation Army gave me a second option,” Armstead said. “I could have taken one of two paths—either choose the gang life or The Salvation Army life and turn my life around.”
He chose the latter and spent every spare hour at the center surrounded by nurturing adults. His grades improved and his use of the center’s sports activities revealed a talent for basketball.
“It was the simple things; we were caring. We gave the time the kid was asking for and we listened. There was always an adult there to play ball with him,” Jones said. “Even after a grueling high school basketball workout, he would still come here and work out and play ball. He knew he had a safe, loving environment to come to.”
Armstead received an offer from Loyola Marymount University to play basketball and get an education. After graduating with a degree in sociology, Armstead returned to Loyola to work as a graduate assistant in the School of Education and is currently working on receiving a master’s degree.
“The Salvation Army gave me a new life,” Armstead said. “It gave me the opportunity to see the world kind of how it truly is, so to say. It gave me the opportunity to look past the four corners of my neighborhood and see that there were other things in life that I could pursue. It let me know that I could do anything in life as long as I put my mind to it and give my all.”
Armstead continues to visit The Salvation Army Siemon Youth and Community Center every week and is involved with summer camps there. He is committed to becoming a mentor to young people.
“I try and be a role model to everyone I encounter,” Armstead said. “I really want to implement change in not only my community, but in all communities. It’s about helping everyone who needs help.”