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A place to gather for fun, learning

'Live' from City Hall

Posted: April 1, 2008 7:13 p.m.
Updated: June 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
In the early 1990s, the area known as East Newhall, located at the southeast end of the city of Santa Clarita, faced many daunting challenges.

Newhall was and continues to be home to many low-income immigrant families and guest workers. Many of the youth in this area are "at-risk" for drug abuse, gang membership, and other destructive activities.

In 1994 a small, vocal group of Newhall residents approached the Santa Clarita City Council pleading for a place where youth could participate in recreational and educational programs that would assist in their growth and development and provide a positive alternative to a life of gangs and drugs.

The city of Santa Clarita responded and leased a warehouse in downtown Newhall, converting it into a community center for East Newhall residents. The center featured a boxing program for high-risk teens, a Ballet Folklorico dance program, a teen group and a small after-school program. The city also provided an on-site, bilingual Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy with a satellite office at the center to provide community members with access to local law enforcement in a non-threatening, informal environment.

Within a few years after the center opened, it was apparent that Newhall residents needed it to be much more than just a "youth center." The community needed English as a Second Language classes, citizenship
workshops, and health and exercise classes for adults, just to name a few, but there was no room for expansion.

Additionally, the facility, which was rented, had begun to deteriorate.

In the spring of 2002, several residents representing the broader Newhall community approached the City Council about the poor condition and overcrowding of the Community Center. The City Council agreed that a new facility was needed and in the summer of 2002, the city held several town-hall meetings inviting the public to discuss possible sites.

The city also teamed up with the "Latino Community Action Network" to form a "New Community Center Committee" made up of concerned community members, to gain input throughout the development and design process. The community's ideas and input shaped the architect's design and helped prioritize
programming for the new center.

Just two blocks from the original center location, within the Newhall Redevelopment Area and in the "backyard" of the very community that had requested it, construction of the new Community Center began in August of 2004. Throughout the entire Newhall Community Center construction period, not a single Incident of vandalism or graffiti occurred despite the fact that the center was being built in the heart of one of the highest crime areas in the Santa Clarita Valley.

In fact, several residents "stood guard" over the center at night to ensure that vandalism or graffiti would not slow down construction.

Activities continued at the old center site during construction, and in 2005, the Community Center won the Hispanic Business Committee's "Amistad Award" for best organization in Santa Clarita in service of the Latino community.

After four years of working together, the brand-new Newhall Community Center opened to the public on Jan. 21, 2006. This state-of-the-art, 17,000-square-foot facility featured a multi-purpose gymnasium, professional boxing gym, classroom, teen room, toy library, sheriff's substation, locker rooms, dance studio, and an outdoor basketball court, stage, more parking, and a playground.

Within the first week of the center's grand opening, more than 600 residents signed up for a center membership. However, there is a more important story beyond the increase in participation. The center was now a vital Newhall "hub," not just a youth center.

The center was now able to offer the classes the community had requested - including three English classes, numerous citizenship and immigration workshops, health and exercise classes and on-site, no-cost family therapy with a licensed counselor, just to name a few.

Whether they are taking an English class, learning about their immigration rights, getting a diabetes test or taking an aerobics class, community members were finding empowerment right in their own backyard.
There are also many youth on the road to success as well, thanks to the Newhall Community Center. Juan Ruiz Jr., now an accomplished professional boxer, learned how to box in the center's boxing program.

One young center member, Edith, upon entering the center at age 16, was struggling with school, abusing drugs, and hanging out with gang members. After participating at the center regularly in such programs as the "Girls Issues Group" and the "Youth Employment Services" program, Edith is now 18, off drugs, and an employee at the center. She is college bound with aspirations of becoming a probation officer.

Additionally, community members who were once afraid of law enforcement now feel comfortable interacting with the on-site, bilingual deputy, Joe Trejo, who is affectionately called the "mayor of Newhall."

The Newhall community views the center as their center, an invaluable resource and a source of support. New community center committee member Rosa Hernandez stated: "Not only did the city build a great community center, they also built a great relationship with the residents."

City officials, law enforcement, and residents agree that the Community Center has effectively reduced crime, graffiti, violence, and gang involvement in Newhall. The city's investment of financial resources into
the center has also spurred economic improvements in the adjacent downtown area, with individual property owners "sprucing up" their properties both structurally and in ongoing maintenance.

By the end of the first year, more than 3,400 residents had signed up for a membership, a yearly increase of over 40 percent. The center has been graffiti free for over a year, which is testament to the perceived value of the center and the ownership the community takes in it.

The Newhall Community Center, and the successful partnership it represents, will continue to have a dramatic, positive effect on the community for many years to come.

For more information on the Newhall Community Center, please call 661-286-4006.

Rick Gould is the director of Santa Clarita's Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. "Live from City Hall" is a column provided to The Signal by the city of Santa Clarita.

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