A few months ago, when the parents of a young Pacoima girl dying of leukemia had no money to rent a hall for a quinceanera party for their daughter, they turned to Joseph Dickson, director of the David M. Gonzales-Pacoima Recreation Center.
As always, Dickson helped out by reworking the center’s schedule so that its gymnasium could be used for the gala event--a traditional coming-out party for Latinas when they reach their 15th birthdays.
“He can’t say no to kids,” said his assistant, Veronica Rodriguez. “He’s very caring.”
During Dickson’s 19 years as director, the park, located in one of the poorest areas of the San Fernando Valley, has become a kind of community center for the surrounding Pacoima neighborhood and two nearby public housing projects.
Rodriguez and youths who frequent the park say that “Mr. D,” as Dickson is known, is never too busy to listen to their problems.
“There’s nothing for the kids around here to do,” Dickson said. “They’re in the midst of gangs and drugs and they need someone to listen to them. The most rewarding thing is the kids that come back and tell me, ‘I’m glad you took me in that room and listened.’ ”
But the job holds frustrations as well. At a time of tight city park budgets, Dickson said he is frustrated because nearby residents cannot afford to financially support much-needed youth activities, and civic organizations do not usually offer assistance.
Last month, for instance, a letter asking for softball equipment or money to buy some was mailed to 300 service clubs, churches and residents throughout the Valley. No one responded.
“Not one glove. Not even a used glove,” he lamented.
Many youths and park staff credit Dickson, 52, a former football player at the University of Nebraska, with keeping the Pacoima park relatively free of gang activity, drug dealing and crime that commonly plague urban parks.
Members of two local gangs--the Project Boys and the Pacoima Flats--participate in park activities, but Dickson said, “There are no drive-by shootings at this park. There used to be a lot of graffiti, but that’s 99% gone now. The park has been sort of a neutral place.”
However the Herrick Avenue park, about a block away from the San Fernando Gardens housing project, is not immune from periodic crime problems.
“I wouldn’t say the park is exempt from gang activity. Gang members go anywhere they want,” said Sgt. Bruce Cowan.
But when gang members gather at the park, they will probably wind up talking to Dickson, who is not afraid to confront the youths or even break up a fight.
“He’s the only guy around here who can talk to the gang members,” said Gerald Adams, 20, a longtime regular at the park who said he resisted joining a gang partly because of Dickson’s advice. “They have a lot of trust in him.”
Adams said Dickson has counseled him against retaliating against gang members who once picked a fight with him. “He calmed me down and told me it was silly to get so upset. So I didn’t try to get them.”
Jackie Tatum, assistant general manager of recreation services in the Valley who has known Dickson for 20 years, described him as “a people person. . . . It’s just like he’s the big brother and the role model for the kids.”
Gang members and other youths “do respect this facility,” Dickson said. “They try to be on their best behavior when they’re here. It’s just showing respect.”
But he added that earning the respect of the community’s youth was something he worked hard to attain.
“It’s not peaches and cream all the time,” Dickson said. “It’s how determined you are to work with the kids. I’m not saying you can do this overnight. It’s taken a lot of years to earn their respect.”
Dickson’s first day as director of the center was evidence of that.
“A young man was drinking vodka in the park and I told him he’d have to leave,” Dickson said. “After that, he saw me talking on the phone and I guess he thought I was calling the police. The next night I went outside and all my car windows were broken. I knew who did it, but I didn’t say anything until years later.”
He also credits his faith in God with helping him cope with problem youths. “You have to have God in your soul,” he said. “He’s the one who keeps me going.”
Dickson didn’t always want a career in recreation. As a boy growing up in Pittsburgh, he wanted to be a professional athlete. In those days, Dickson’s father worked at a steel mill and his mother cleaned houses to support the family, he said.
But his college football career was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After serving two years in Germany, Dickson found himself living in the Los Angeles area. “I came out here with my mother to see a brother she hadn’t seen in 38 years,” he said. “I liked it and stayed.”
It was then that Dickson decided to become a physical education teacher. But he abandoned that goal after he learned that California required a fifth year of college for a teaching credential.
Instead, he completed the final two years of his college education, earning a bachelor’s degree in recreation at Cal State Northridge while working a full-time maintenance job.
“I’ve never regretted making that decision,” he said. “The park system plays such a vital role in a community. We’re teachers, nurses, counselors, police officers.”
“If you want to make something out of yourself, it’s there,” Dickson said. “I tell kids that. It’s all what you put into life. I didn’t have time to party and I didn’t party. It’s all what you put into it.”
Dickson also met his wife, Rita, while in college. The couple, who live in Lake View Terrace, have four adult children and two grandchildren.
Dickson worked only one year for the city Recreation and Parks Department before being appointed director at the Pacoima center.
“I’ve been here so long that I have kids bringing their kids in to see me,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Kids even call me from jail. A few months ago, I was invited to a wedding by one of them. I went. The wedding was in jail. The judge married the couple.”
Recreation assistant Maria Lopez said Dickson is the kind of man who always has a dollar in his pocket to lend to youths. “He knows they’ll pay him back.”
During Dickson’s tenure, the Pacoima center also has produced some star athletes. Charles White, now retired from the Los Angeles Rams, started his career playing flag football at the park, Dickson said.
But it is the day-to-day contact with children that Dickson finds most rewarding. “You see that smile on a kid’s face when he checks out a handball. That’s the enjoyment.”
Park programs are planned around community needs. For example, there is an extended day-care program that charges working parents only $30 a week. “People around here have problems affording even that much,” he said.
In addition to regular park activities, there is a new weightlifting club for the older boys, a softball team for teen-age girls, a free lunch program and a group for teen-age girls who meet and talk over their problems.
Many community meetings are held at the center. Fred Taylor, president of Focus ‘90s, a group of homeowner and civic organizations, said he has called Dickson at the last minute to ask to hold events in the gymnasium. “He always shifts his schedule to accommodate us,” Taylor said.
“He’s very low-key,” Taylor said. “Sometimes, you don’t even realize he’s the one making things work. He should be patted on the back, but that doesn’t happen very often.”
With the cooperation of officers at the Foothill Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, Dickson also holds dances for teen-agers once a week at the center.
“All we’ve done is reached out our hand to the kids and asked, ‘What do you want? This is your park,’ ” Dickson said. “You have to be able to listen to what they have to say.”
However, Dickson said, like the youths who frequent the park, one of his main obstacles at the center is the lack of money.
“We have no uniforms for some of the kids,” he said. “Right now I’m trying to hustle up enough money for some trophies to hold a little awards ceremony for the baseball leagues.”
Although he has a few loyal volunteers, Dickson said there is little financial support from the community for park programs. Recently a volunteer sent out 300 letters asking for help in buying gloves for the girls’ softball team.
“We didn’t get one response,” Dickson said. “It was disappointing. The Foothill Division did come through with some uniforms.”
“In order to solve these problems with teens, the community is going to have to get involved,” Dickson said. “The ones who are griping about the gangs, drugs and crime, what are they doing for the kids?”
He said police officers have become involved with the park for the first time this year. Three officers are coaching girls’ softball teams.
Dickson said he stays at the center because “Pacoima is an easy place to fall in love with.” Dickson said he could earn more than his present $35,000-a-year salary if he took a civil service exam for a higher position. But that would mean taking an administrative job in a regional office.
“Sometimes money is not what counts,” Dickson said. “Me, sitting in an office? I could never do that. I have to be out and about. I like it just fine right where I am.”
Youths who come to the park like Dickson just fine where he is, too.
“He’s a good man,” said Adams, the park regular. “When you need help, he’ll help you out. He helps me find jobs. I’ve got to work now. I have a baby daughter.”
“I like him, that’s it,” said Victoria Hernandez, 19, who heads a group for older teen-age girls at the center. “He lets us do things we like to do.”