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Regis House Helps Young, Old Alike : Catholic Center an Urban Haven

Times Staff Writer

When they need after-school child care, language classes or just somewhere to meet with friends, about 400 families on the Westside have a refuge in Regis House.

For 40 years, the family oriented community center run by an order of Catholic nuns has served hundreds of predominantly Latino families in the Sawtelle area of West Los Angeles.

“Our philosophy is to build self-esteem, to give a sense of purpose and meaning to those who sometimes feel their lives are empty and hopeless,” said Sister Jennifer Gaeta, Regis House director. “We strive to eliminate or at least lessen outside forces, which weaken the unity and cohesiveness of the family.”

What sets Regis House apart from many other community centers is that it operates without financial support from the government.

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The center is run by the Sisters of Social Service, an 80-year-old Roman Catholic order of social workers.

It gets most of its $190,000 annual budget from the Juniors of Social Service Auxiliary. The balance of the budget is raised through donations and fees that participants are charged based on their ability to pay.

Among the services provided in the single-story building at 11346 Iowa Ave. are a preschool program; after-school clubs, tutoring and sports, and a program for teen-agers that includes evening recreational activities, after-school and summer employment, and a summer day camp.

Adult Clubs Offered

For adults, there is a mothers club, a senior citizens club, and classes in cooking, sewing, English and civics.

The center assists people with medical care and Social Security problems, and provides translation and help to immigrants filling out applications for permanent residency or citizenship.

Regis House also works with Westside food banks to provide meals to the needy and gives referrals to people needing temporary shelter.

The success of the center was recognized recently by the West Los Angeles Lions Club, which named Gaeta its Citizen of the Year.

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At the awards ceremony, several local elected officials sent congratulatory messages, but Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude, who represents the area, appeared in person.

“I don’t normally attend these things,” he said, “but I wanted to say in person that this center is doing something in a very direct and meaningful way.”

Made a Difference

Jack Moscowitz, principal of nearby University High School, said the center has made a difference with some of his students.

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“My experience goes back to 1959 to 1971, when I was a teacher at Uni,” Moscowitz said. “Regis House is a very positive, supportive agency working with the young people in the area.”

Although the number of families in the community continues to dwindle as homes are demolished to make way for commercial buildings, Gaeta says the need for social services is growing and the center’s programs remain full.

“The needs of this community are far greater than our ability to meet,” said Gaeta, who has worked at Regis House for nine years, the last three as director.

On a recent morning, about 20 Latinas--members of a womens club that meets weekly--sat at a table playing bingo.

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Rosemary Lechuga, who took part in the center’s activities for 10 years before becoming a full-time staff member five years ago, said many of the women got involved in the club after their children began participating in Regis House programs.

Time Away From Home

Lechuga said the purpose of the club is to give the women at least one day a week away from their husbands and children, and to attempt to chip away some of the machismo that still pervades Latino culture.

The women in the group, nearly all of whom speak little English, receive information on medical care, mental health and finances. They take field trips to such places as the J. Paul Getty Museum, Farmers Market and Universal Studios.

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“This is fun,” said Esperanza Martin, who has been attending meetings for 21 years. “And it allows us a chance to dress up at least once a week.”

Hilda Mokay, who has been attending meetings for four years, said the field trips allow them to visit places they might not otherwise see.

“Some of our husbands would have complained about us going to these places on our own,” Mokay said.

“But going with Regis House, for some reason, makes it OK with them.”

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The youth programs are designed to give children and teen-agers an alternative to gangs, and to encourage them to get an education, Gaeta said.

“I don’t ever try to talk the kids out of their gang identity because I believe that it is just that, a large part of their identity,” she said. “But I have always tried to help them see the consequences of their actions and to look for alternatives.”

Place for Youth

Esperanza (Espi) Martin, 19, began participating in activities at Regis House when she was 12. Now she is a paid part-time staff member, working as a tutor and girl’s club leader.

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Martin said that when she was younger, Regis House offered her a place to go when she wanted to get out of the house and away from her parents.

“Coming here reassured my parents that I was not just hanging out on the streets,” she said. “I think it has helped a lot of kids stay off the streets.”

As he dashed into the center to pick up his 9-year-old daughter, Fernando Aguirre said Regis House workers have helped his teen-age son with his homework, and the low-cost after-school program allows him and his wife to work.

“I don’t speak or read English very well,” Aguirre said in Spanish, “so I’m not always able to help my son with his homework. The tutoring he gets here has been great. The evening and weekend programs are also great, particularly with the increase in gang activity here. I think Regis House has just helped tremendously.”

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