In many ways, growing up in Costa Mesa's Shalimar neighborhood was downright idyllic for Paolo Leon.
His parents were dedicated and hardworking. His friends staged soccer matches and played kick the can on the streets of the tight-knit enclave. Fireworks shows dazzled on the Fourth of July.
"I didn't think that my childhood was all that different from anybody else's," Leon, now 31, said in an interview this week in his old neighborhood. "I'd have to say I had a happy childhood, despite the things that happened in this neighborhood while I lived here."
When Leon was growing up, this densely populated slice of the Westside was known more for violence and crime than soccer games.
Drug dealers brazenly hawked their wares. Gunshots from warring gang factions were more commonplace than fireworks.
Today, the neighborhood is a much more tranquil scene.
Near the hustle and bustle of children riding bikes or waiting patiently outside an ice cream truck sits the Shalimar Learning Center, an academic tutoring and support facility housed in a nondescript apartment building that Leon and others credit for helping spur positive changes in the neighborhood.
The success of the center led to the formation of THINK — Teaching, Helping, Inspiring and Nurturing Kids — Together, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that has since replicated those programs hundreds of times over.
Though the organization has grown exponentially since its humble beginnings, founder and Chief Executive Randy Barth continues to tout the success of the still-running center in Shalimar.
Over the last eight years, 100% of high school seniors who attend programs there have gone to college, he said during an interview at the center this week.
"What we've learned is, with the right support system, these kids can achieve what anybody else can," he said. "What I like to say is any street in America would be proud to have these outcomes for their kids."
Need for change
In the mid-1990s, issues with crime and gang activity had grown so serious that the city installed barriers blocking where Shalimar Drive used to meet Placentia and Pomona avenues and where Wallace Avenue intersected West 18th Street — the idea being that cutting traffic through the neighborhood would reduce crime. On-street parking was forbidden along Shalimar.
Neighborhood mothers were desperate to find a quiet, safe place where their children could study and get help with their schoolwork.
In 1994, those residents came together with St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, St. Joachim Catholic Church in Costa Mesa, Women of Vision and others to open what became known as the Shalimar Learning Center.
Operating out of a typical apartment building on Shalimar Drive, the center may not have seemed terribly impressive at first glance.
"We rented this first apartment downstairs thinking we'd have 30 kids," Barth said. "The first week, we had 100 kids show up."
In 1997, Barth and others founded THINK Together with the goal of replicating and building on programs like the one in Shalimar.
Today, the nonprofit serves about 150,000 students in more than 500 schools statewide.
Barth laughed when asked whether he'd ever imagined that first center morphing into the operation that exists today.
"No," the 58-year-old Santa Ana resident said. "We had no idea."
Though THINK Together's programs take many forms and have evolved throughout the years, Barth said its fundamental DNA remains unchanged.
"It's academic support in whatever flavor makes sense," he said. "It could be small-group tutoring, it could be in-school interventions, it could be early childhood or early literacy programs getting kids ready for kindergarten. It could be summer or full, comprehensive, daily after-school programs. It's those rapid, round academic support systems."
THINK Together's size and resources allow it to be flexible, Barth said, and tailor programs to fit specific needs in different areas.
"It actually made us better, counter-intuitively, when we got bigger than when we were smaller," he said of the organization's growth. "And when you get more visible, you can attract more resources."
An ‘underlying thread’
Leon began attending the Shalimar Learning Center in elementary school and continued through high school.
Looking back, the now-Irvine resident said the biggest things THINK Together provided him and other neighborhood children were the resources they didn't have at home.
"I didn't have access to educated, English-speaking parents who could help me with my homework or who knew how to use a computer and who I could go to for advice or help when I ran into issues," he said. "Having people from the community, and from surrounding communities, giving their time to be a resource to us and THINK Together making some additional resources like computers, books, miscellaneous materials available, I think that's where I really saw value in the program."
While attending USC, Leon said some people he had met through THINK Together helped him land an internship at MVE + Partners, an architectural firm in Irvine.
After graduating, Leon started working at the company full time and continues there to this day.
"I can trace the path that I've been on to key, catalytic events in my life," he said. "And I think the underlying thread behind all of that is my involvement with THINK Together — the doors that opened and the opportunities it created and then the support that allowed me to take advantage of those and succeed."
Leon currently sits on the organization's board of directors.
Present and future
During a dinner in Shalimar on Tuesday, participating students said the learning center has had an immeasurable impact on them.
"I love the environment here," said 17-year-old Reyna Gonzalez, who's been attending THINK programs since second grade. "Everyone here is so friendly, and every day I'm making new friends."
Though she first started attending because of her mother — "my brothers both came here, and my mom would always tell me, 'OK, you're going to be doing it too,' " she recalled with a laugh — the Newport Harbor High School senior said she values the tutoring and mentoring she's received over the years.
Javier Martin, a 17-year-old senior at Sage Hill School, has been attending since third grade.
Along with the academic resources and support he receives, Martin's enjoyed getting a chance to meet some of the program's successful alumni.
"Seeing examples of success and people that work really hard makes me motivated and want to pursue my dreams and my career," he said.
The center's success stories, he added, show "students that it is possible to pursue their dreams — it doesn't matter where they come from or how much their parents earn."
THINK Together will mark its 20th anniversary April 27 with a celebration event at UCI.
"It's definitely rewarding and satisfying in many ways," Leon said. "Obviously, my success is something I'm proud of, and something that my family's proud of, but more so I'm just really happy with the continued success of the program, the many success stories that have come and the opportunities that this center continues to create for the community."
Though two decades are in the books, Barth said the organization is always looking at future opportunities and hopes to eventually develop a community center in Shalimar.
No matter how large the organization gets, though, Barth said he'll always have a soft spot for that first Westside apartment.
In the tech world, he said, there are those who venerate the meager garages in which companies like Hewlett-Packard first started.
"This is THINK Together's garage," he said, looking toward the center with a grin. "This is where our heart and soul is."
For information on the organization's anniversary event, or to purchase tickets, visit ThinkTwenty.com.