A local community center is helping people conquer inequality

What began as an effort to transform a Santa Ana bookstore into a neighborhood learning hub has evolved into a thriving cultural center offering everything from well-attended story times for preschoolers to teen mentoring programs and an array of community events.

Welcome to El Centro Comunitario de Educación, an alternative space created by the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University.

"It's all about community," said Nicole Myers, 21, a junior at Chapman University who mentors high school students at El Centro Comunitario de Educación. "It's a wonderful atmosphere and the kids are there because they want to succeed in life and are determined to find a better future."

El Centro Comunitario, as it is more commonly known, sits in the heart of downtown Santa Ana, a city where nearly eight out of every 10 residents are Latino and where the median household income is less than $55,000, compared to the median household income of nearly $76,000 for all of Orange County.

El Centro Comunitario is headed by Anaida Colón-Muñiz, an associate professor at Chapman University who for the last 18 years has served in various roles for the College of Educational Studies.

"There has been a long civil rights effort to gain equity in the Latino community, and El Comunitario de Educación is another step in that ongoing effort," Colón-Muñiz said.

El Centro Comunitario's roots stretch back nearly four years to when Chapman University's College of Educational Studies assumed control of a local bookstore that had seen better days. The college set up reading and literacy programs in what was renamed Librería Martínez de Chapman University. As programs became more popular, the focus shifted. Last month, El Comunitario de Educación was born.

Among the offerings:

Reading Starts Early, a program for preschoolers who are brought in for story time and early lessons in literacy. "We want them to fall in love with reading," said Colón-Muñiz, who noted that El Centro Comunitario is partnering with nearby schools and nonprofits in building the program.

teen mentoring program that pairs Chapman University mentors such as Nicole Myers with students at Santa Ana high schools looking for tips on career readiness and college preparation strategies. Mentors meet with teens for 90 minutes each week.

The Padres Unidos partnership, in which workshops are provided for parents looking to boost their communication and child-rearing skills.

Events ranging from a "Bohemian Night" to hosting children's authors and artists. "We have a couple events each month that bring community together in a supportive, educational setting," Colón-Muñiz said.

In all, up to 200 or more Santa Ana residents take part in the myriad programs offered at El Centro Comunitario. Among those having the most impact is the teen mentoring effort.

"It's been quite an experience," said Daniel Lopez, an 18-year-old senior at Santa Ana High School who credits Chapman University mentors with helping him get accepted to both Chapman University and UC Irvine, where he plans to major in music and math. "You're paired up with a person who is either in college or who has graduated from college, someone who can help you understand the college experience and advise you about what you need to know. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who feels the need to have a pair of helping hands get you through the process."

Colón-Muñiz said she is proud of how far El Centro Comunitario has come in such a short time.

"El Centro Comunitario de Educación has become a marriage of these different outreach efforts that we've had in the past to promote education any way we can," said Colón-Muñiz. 

—David Ogul, Tribune Content Solutions

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
Paid Posts