As a child, Darlene Visoso tried to protect herself from the harsh words she endured from her father's girlfriend by shutting off her emotions.
Until her early years of high school, she dealt with her pain, anger and insecurity by ignoring her feelings.
"I kind of went into a phase where I was like, what's the point of feeling? What's the point of laughing if you're going to cry? What's the point of crying if it's non-ending emotion?" she said.
Though the girlfriend and her father have since split up, Darlene, now 17 and a recent graduate of South Gate High School, made a short film about her experiences titled "Learning to Feel." She wrote it and played a part, starring as a girl who must learn to express her emotions after the death of her best friend.
The film was created through one of several programs run by Southern California Crossroads, a nonprofit group that aims to help underprivileged youths in violence-plagued communities. The film program, in partnership with the New York-based Tribeca Film Institute and St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, allows students to confront social issues in their communities and their lives.
The topics addressed in the short films include such things as bullying, gun and gang violence, acceptance and self-identity. Saul Cervantes, a teacher with Crossroads, said filmmaking gives students a way to communicate.
"They feel like whatever they go through, they have to say it's not really important," he said. "This gives us an opportunity to show them a way to have a voice."
Crossroads was formed in 2005 to help youths avoid violence, intervene in crisis situations and provide reentry services for those with criminal records. Although the heart of the program is education and employment, Crossroads offers mentoring, case management, tattoo removals and the film program.
It serves 18- to 24-year-olds who have dropped out of high school or have a criminal background. The exception is the film program, which includes students at Hosler Middle School in Lynwood, South Gate High School and Lynwood High School.
Cervantes said he assesses students' weaknesses and strengths, and assigns them jobs on films because "everyone has a spot in filmmaking." Once they have jobs, the students must work together, which unifies students, something that doesn't always happen outside the program, he said.
Alan Lopez, 13, acted in a film about how difficult it can be for young people to show who they really are, a challenge he has dealt with.
"You have to be yourself and not care what other people think," Alan said, adding that it can be difficult because people "judge you by your cover."
Paul Carrillo, executive director of the nonprofit, said he hopes the films' impact extends beyond Crossroads and into the community. Because he wants the content to be relevant, he allows students to choose topics and write films to reflect what's going on in their lives.
"We think they don't see anything, they don't know anything, they're naive," Cervantes said. "But they see it all."
One member of the young adult class, Eric Saldana, 24, said he knows there's violence and criminal activity in his neighborhood. So he chose to act in a film about choosing peace over violence. He said he is committed to raising awareness of the issues his friends and family members have been traumatized by.
He wants to show his work to friends and family "for them to change or something, to take the same thing that I took."
On June 28, more than 100 people filed into an auditorium at St. Francis, the hospital that works in collaboration with the program. Among them were students, parents, surgeons and financial sponsors. All came to watch the first Crossroads film screening.
They viewed 11 films. The last featured teenagers releasing red balloons into the sky, an abstract depiction of its creators' desire to chase their dreams.
After the film, Carrillo told the crowd, "We wanted you all to leave feeling inspired."
As each person left, they were handed a chocolate or carrot cupcake decorated with white icing and a little red balloon.