When Diane Marotta kicked her 3-year-old son, she knew that she needed to talk to an expert, someone who could help her deal with the abuse she herself had suffered as a child. But, flat broke, she could not afford expensive therapy.
So Marotta, her French-born husband and their two children joined the mostly Latino crowd of day laborers, pregnant teen-agers and others who flock to El Centro de Amistad in Canoga Park each day for everything from counseling to school help to food and a few laughs.
El Centro's staff psychologists and mental health counselors helped the Texas native overcome her rage over being sexually abused by her father from the time she was 3.
"I had a very troubling childhood," Marotta said. "I knew that if I didn't get help, I would hurt my son--I mean really hurt my son."
"I needed help," she said. "And what I found was a little bit of heaven."
Three years later, the former photographer still comes to El Centro at least once a week to talk to counselors, volunteer time or drop off clothes outgrown by her children. Her family has achieved a level of peace, she said.
Many who receive free services from El Centro de Amistad--Spanish for "The Friendship Center"--return to lend a hand, drawn by the tiny agency's spirit of camaraderie and selflessness. Others come back because of the chronic, interwoven problems of their poverty, hunger, depression and violence.
"Oftentimes, you have to deal with the whole set of problems at once," said Ed Moreno, chairman of El Centro's board. "A guy comes in because he lost his job, and then you find out he's beating his wife, that his family doesn't have any food and that his kids are getting into trouble. You have to take a holistic approach to this."
Moreno said the number of clients coming to the west San Fernando Valley's only mental health center for Latinos and the poor has increased dramatically in recent years as Los Angeles-area residents continue to struggle against a stubborn recession.
More and more, the Monday line of day laborers waiting for El Centro's weekly job opportunities list is lengthened by former engineers, business people and other professionals--many of them Anglos--whose lives fell apart after they joined the ranks of the unemployed, Moreno said.
But the clientele remains about three-quarters Latino. Often, more than 100 a day come from across the Valley for family, child or individual counseling, study sessions, food, clothing and advice from the bilingual staff of more than a dozen full-time employees.
About 500 people volunteer at the center annually, according to a report filed with United Way.
During a typical year, El Centro's staff sees nearly 10,000 people for counseling. Thousands more come for food and information, and about 700 people a year study English, government, geography and other subjects. About 500 families receive food and toys from the center each Christmas.
El Centro gets more than half of its $600,000 annual budget from the city of Los Angeles, and the rest comes from the county, United Way, and other donations and grants.
The center has been forced to freeze its budget for the past several years due to cuts from every source. A few staff members have left, and United Way last year halved a $34,000 grant for college students to tutor struggling younger students.
Some of the money is set aside for the center's satellite office in the city of San Fernando, and $66,000 is earmarked for El Centro's use of probationers on its volunteer force of graffiti-removers, who respond to reports of tagging with paint brushes and scrubbers in the center's "anti-graffiti van."
In the West Valley, the roving crews are a major force fighting graffiti, often described as one of the region's fastest-growing crime trends, said Los Angeles Police Officer Paul Bernal of the department's West Valley Community Relations Office.
"A lot of times I'll get complaints of graffiti and, by the time I get out there, it's already cleaned up," Bernal said. "Usually, by the quality of the job, I can tell it's the El Centro crews who were there."
Working with youths convicted of vandalism, shoplifting or other minor crimes is especially rewarding because most of them are just beginning to get in trouble, said Ramona Fuentes, who helps coordinate El Centro's graffiti program.
"We counsel them and, most importantly, we get them involved in volunteering while they are working off their community service," Fuentes said. "Some of them actually come back after their community service is finished and want to volunteer some more. I feel very happy when that happens."
The center, wedged between a sheet-metal fabricator and a furniture shop on the industrial 7000 block of Deering Avenue, was set up in 1977 to serve a growing neighborhood of Latinos in the West Valley, a mostly well-to-do, white area of Los Angeles.
Inside, the cinder-block walls are decorated with ads for condoms and crisis hot lines, sketches of bullfight scenes and copies of a Cesar Chavez photo underscored by the slogan, in Spanish: "Nonviolence is our strength."
The space, partitioned by shelves and filing cabinets, serves as classroom, child-therapy center and thrift shop. The size of the building is totally inadequate, Moreno said.
El Centro outgrew its space during the past decade as word spread about the services offered there and as the West Valley's Latino population nearly doubled to more than 18% of all residents. Nearly one-third of the Valleywide population is Latino.
The need for bilingual family counselors also continues to grow as immigrant parents raise children born in this country, said Dr. Sergio Castillo, a clinical psychologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
"A lot of times you have a lack of communication between parents, who grew up in Mexico and speak mostly Spanish, and their kids, who are speaking more and more English," Castillo said.
"And then you also have a sense of cultural displacement among many immigrants who aren't part of this country yet, and don't feel like they're part of their old country anymore," he said. "You get this feeling that you're sort of lost--you've got one foot in and one foot out."
El Centro's approach to the needs of Latinos receives high marks from several Valley counselors and physicians, who regularly refer patients there.
"They have a good staff of caring people," said Dr. Marvin Pietruszka, a Reseda family physician. "They are a real asset in the community, and I don't think there are other agencies that can offer the services they do. If they were not in existence, many people would be lacking in the care they need."
But because of the cramped conditions at the center, many people with medical problems must be referred to local primary-care clinics and hospitals, some of which provide health services free of charge or at a discount rate.
El Centro officials hope to move their operation to a larger site in the Canoga Park area, with more space to offer free health care to the region's poor--many of whom might wait until a problem developed into a medical emergency before seeking help somewhere else.
"It's a shame to have to send these people somewhere else," Moreno said. "We refer them somewhere for screening, but we don't know if they're actually going to show up or not. They're embarrassed; maybe they don't speak English very well and they feel more comfortable here.
"There's nobody else around who is always going to look at these people whether or not they have insurance, whether or not they can pay. What is the county going to do? Give them a number and make them sit there."
The Los Angeles County health system will not turn away any patient who cannot pay for an examination. But many uninsured, low-income clients are forced to wait for hours before they are attended to, said Bob Frangenberg, who coordinates services at 10 north county centers.
Moreno, sporting suspenders and a white goatee, envisions an El Centro medical center with at least one doctor and several nurses who could screen patients for general health problems and provide inoculations.
Although many grants are available for preventive medical care, finding money to outfit a new and larger center could be difficult, he said.
El Centro's traditional donors--the city, county and United Way--are trimming their budgets, and many individuals are feeling the press of tough economic times.
But Moreno remains undaunted.
"When things are bad all around, that is when there is the most need for a place like El Centro," he said. "We will find the money."
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus, whose district includes Canoga Park, said there is a growing need for the type of services provided by El Centro. But she was unsure where the money for expansion might come from.
"When they make a request for money, we'll do a search for it because . . . they really do it all," Picus said. "And as the state takes from the county and the county provides fewer services, these organizations are going to have more to do."
At least one neighbor would not be unhappy to see El Centro leave its present site. Bob Reed, owner of Chamber Sheet Metal Inc., said although his business has not suffered, the occasional crowds outside the center worry him.
"We thought we had controlled the gang problem until they came," Reed said. "They've got kids running in and out of there while there's traffic on the street. I don't want to say anything bad about them, but I think they'd be better off somewhere else."
Other neighbors say El Centro has never been a problem on the block, and they don't mind the presence of the homeless, the jobless and those who have fallen through the holes in the official social welfare net.
And many El Centro patrons say they don't know where they would be today if the little agency did not exist.
"I was so depressed when I came here," said Adrianna Gil, who came to the Valley from Mexico four years ago. "I don't know what I would have done if they were not here. I probably would have gone back home."
A friend told Gil to go to El Centro for help in dealing with her hyperactive son. Because the immigrant family had money and housing problems, they went to the center for help. Like the Marottas, the Gils come back regularly to seek advice, volunteer and just spend time.
"The only people I know here are my son, my daughter, my husband and El Centro de Amistad," Gil said. "They are my family."