Canoga Park Center Finds Life Under New Leader

Barbara Hopfinger is a Canoga Park free-lance writer

Just a couple of years ago, there weren't many people hanging around Guadalupe Center in Canoga Park except for druggies.

"Kids jumped the fence and did drugs right in the parking lot," said Los Angeles Police Officer Fred Romero, who directs Project Amigo at the center twice a week to give advice about disputes on wages and civil matters. "It wasn't a dangerous place, just a building with nothing happening."

Today the center is a bustling place offering services for preschoolers, a senior meals program and after-school clubs for teen-agers, among other activities. Although drugs still proliferate nearby, there are no such activities on the center grounds now, Romero said.

The Turning Point

He and others have said that the person responsible for the turnaround was a young man, Gabriel Hernandez, brought in as director by the Sisters of Social Service, a United Way agency that administers the center.

"Gabriel made things happen," Romero said.

Sister Victoria Trujillo said she chose Hernandez two years ago, when he was only 22, because "he sees a problem as something he can fix." Although she herself had all but given up on the center, she said, she thought that Hernandez "had the feel of what we were trying to do" combined with a youthful enthusiasm.

"He has fulfilled my trust," she said.

Sister Victoria said she made Hernandez's acquaintance when he was a "shy, frightened kid" of 14 who was assigned to her in a federal jobs program.

"The little squirt helped with the younger kids," she said. "He took to everything like a fish to water." By the time he was 18, Sister Victoria had made Hernandez a group worker at Santa Rosa Community Center in San Fernando. Then he took over Guadalupe.

"When I came on the job, there were (marijuana) pipes and joints and liquor bottles everywhere," said Hernandez. There also were graffiti.

Drugs, Graffiti Gone

Today, the drug paraphernalia is gone. And the graffiti disappeared after family programs were added at the center.

"Once their grandparents came to the seniors' nutrition program, once their mothers came to English class, once their fathers came for food donations, the graffiti stopped," said Hernandez, who is short and stocky with a boyish face, a mustache and dimples.

"The Hispanic youth has respect for his home, and Guadalupe Center has become a family home," he said.

Charlotte Olguin, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus and liaison to the Hispanic community in Picus' West Valley district, said that Hernandez came on board at a time when cutbacks in federal funds put pressure on local private and public agencies to coordinate resources.

"We gave Gabriel direction and support," Olguin said. "The rest was up to him." She said she helped Hernandez meet local groups like the Kiwanis, Rotary and the local Chamber of Commerce.

"But the bottom line is that Hernandez himself is accessible and well-liked," Olguin said. "He is open, warm and willing." She added that he "works as many hours as are needed to get a job done."

Among the first things Hernandez did is start the senior-citizens' nutrition program, which is coordinated at Guadalupe Center by Reseda Senior Multi-purpose Center, the lead agency in the West Valley. He also started a soup kitchen for the poor on Sundays. When few people showed up in the beginning, he took the food to the street corners where day laborers waited, hoping for work in gardening, construction or doing other odd jobs. When the free meal was moved back to the center, the men followed it.

Hernandez also started the Tiny-Tot Preschool, where the children are taught their letters, numbers, and colors in English before they enter public school.

"I put my greatest energy into the center's children," Hernandez said. Quoting his mother, he added, "El arbol que crece torcido jamas su tronco endereza . " (The tree that grows crooked can never be straightened out.)

"And it is the same with the child," he said. "A good start in school is a firm foundation for the productive adult."

There are also education programs for older children, including tutoring after school. And there are literacy classes for children, teen-agers and adults. Hernandez said he would like to start a parenting class.

Among the social activities are an after-school club for teen-agers, where they plan pizza nights, dances, and graduation parties.

"If the kids and I convince one more teen-ager to complete high school, my job and my life are worthwhile," Hernandez said.

Schooling on Scholarship

Hernandez attended Alemany High, a private Catholic school in Mission Hills, on a scholarship. He does not know who his benefactor was. "He even remembered to get me a yearbook," Hernandez said. "I'll always wonder what he expected of me."

Jan Brown, librarian at Alemany, said she did not know who the benefactor was, but assumed that it was someone who "was impressed with the family's expectations of the children to take advantage of the educational offerings in the United States." She added that he was "one of those children who never used his lack of English as a crutch."

Hernandez grew up in Tijuana, one of eight children, where he and his brothers sold his mother's tamales in the streets. When his father left to become an agricultural worker in the United States, the family at first stayed behind. Eventually, they followed.

In this country, his strong-willed mother made sure her children were educated.

"No one ignores my mom," Hernandez said, chuckling. "When she comes to the Guadalupe Center, I cringe. She becomes director and reorganizes everything."

In school, Hernandez was known as a personable boy.

"It's hard to forget Gabriel Hernandez," said Sister Bernadette, principal of Santa Rita Elementary School in San Fernando, where Hernandez went. "It wasn't his academic brilliance that separated him from other boys. It was his ease with peers and adults." He was chosen as outstanding student of the year in eighth grade.

Now, Hernandez is attending Mission College to complete requirements for a child-development certificate.

Sister Victoria said she badgers Hernandez every time she speaks to him to get his degree and go on to a four-year college.

"Hernandez is going places, and the degree will refine his skills and will open extra doors," she said.

But he said he finds his work at Guadalupe Center more compelling.

"In a couple of years, I'll go back to school full time," he said. "Right now, I'm part of Guadalupe Center, part of the building."

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