Streetwise Counselor Toughs It Out : When Roberta Payan talks, the ‘homies’ listen because they know she’s been there herself.
Some have spent time in juvenile hall. Others have a reputation around the neighborhood for smooth talking and fast living, experimenting with gang life and drugs.
Many just make some adults nervous because of the colorful street slang they use and the baggy jeans they wear.
Life can be tough for many of them. And when it gets tough, the tough kids who live around Ventura Avenue go to Roberta.
Roberta Payan, director of a community park in one of Ventura’s roughest neighborhoods and a city expert on gang prevention, knows how to talk to the “homies” because she was once one herself.
Mouth going a mile a minute, moods swinging faster than a second hand rounds a clock, Payan spends her days on the harsh streets where she grew up, representing the authority she devoted her teen-age years to trying to defy.
“If you want to make a dent with these kids, you’ve got to go out on the streets and talk to them,” she explained one breezy afternoon, the “Do Not Disturb” sign on her office door all that stood between her and the ever-pressing deluge of adolescent visitors.
“And if you don’t deal with these kids now, they will deal with you later.”
Payan, 38, presides over her corner of the Ventura Avenue neighborhood from a cluttered office at Westpark Recreational Center on West Harrison Street. Outside the door, men play basketball in the gym, children screech in laughter as they barrel down the playground slide, and part-time staff aides dart back and forth, organizing daily programs and keeping a watch on neighborhood troublemakers.
Children and teen-agers constantly barge in on Payan as she tries to get through her work.
“Hey, Roberta, got change for a $20?” one asks as Payan scrounges through her purse. “I want to buy a Coke from the machine.”
“Roberta, my boyfriend’s in trouble, and I don’t know what to do,” cries another, pulling up a chair by her desk.
The older teen-agers and adults who grew up in the neighborhood say the park wasn’t always such a community hub.
Lydia Lovio, 22, a native of the neighborhood, said Payan transformed a sleepy recreational center into a buzzing, bustling local hangout when she started as director in 1991.
“Before, it was like: ‘OK, we offer this, this and this. If you want to do it, fine,’ ” said Lovio, who came on board at the center one month after Payan. “But when she started, it was like a tidal wave of stuff.”
The staff--Payan and a cluster of part-time workers--initiated Friday night movies for the teen-agers who might otherwise hang out curbside and stir up trouble. They helped organize a boxing club and arranged a counseling program for troubled families.
“We’d do anything we could to keep kids here and keep them busy,” said Lovio, who works there part-time, like every other Westpark staff member except Payan.
On top of all her other duties, Payan has been designated a gang intervention specialist by the city of Ventura. The title has helped drive her to apply for and receive a host of grants, including $14,000 from the county to combat drug and alcohol abuse among Avenue youth.
The grants, which Westpark shares with other social service agencies, have paid for raucous, colorful murals on neighborhood walls and will fund a study to determine if the Avenue community has more than its share of liquor stores.
But the daily activities at Westpark aren’t limited to any one grant or program. Payan herself says she wears “17 different hats.” And life at Westpark includes formal day camp sessions, summer job activities and a wide range of other programs.
In the midst of all this bustle and activity, the once shy and withdrawn Lovio has found her own self-esteem.
“Roberta helped me develop my personal skills,” she said. “She gave me self-confidence. I couldn’t deal with stuff, but now I deal with the public almost every day.”
If Payan did not promote the summer jobs program as vigorously as she does, Ulises Lopez, 15, would probably be spending this summer aimlessly hanging out on the streets of the Avenue neighborhood. Instead, he is supervising schoolchildren in a recreation program at the area’s public housing complex, Westview Village.
Ulises doesn’t trust many adults with confidences of any sort. But Payan, he said, is different.
“She grew up in the same place I did, so she knows what I’m growing up with,” he said.
Actually, Payan spent her youth hopscotching back and forth between the Avenue and the east side of Ventura, returning to the tough neighborhood of her early childhood when she entered high school.
“She was a little bit on the strong-willed side,” said her father, Antonio Payan, 68, laughing. “She did her own thing.”
Often, that included scuffles with the law.
“I think I just wanted attention, and you earned attention by being fearless,” Payan said. “By today’s standards, I wasn’t a gangbanger. But then I was.”
Chuckling, Payan combed through her file cabinets at the office and produced a glossy scrapbook chronicling her adolescence. An inside page displays a yellowing news clipping from the 1970s of a teen-age fight that erupted at that summer’s county fair. Next to the police account of the incident is a black-and-white picture of Payan being taken under arrest.
She only physically assaulted the police, she explained, after an officer started scuffling with one of her friends.
“Now, it’s like, the fact that you are not one of us makes you a potential victim,” she said. “Then, you fought for a reason.”
Payan said she also received misdemeanor convictions for petty theft and violation of probation.
In the mid-1970s, however, Payan decided that she wanted to change her life. Since then, her only trouble with the law was a drunk-driving arrest in October, 1993. Still on probation today for driving with a 0.145% blood-alcohol level, Payan had to attend a drunk-driving program, spend a night in jail and pay fines of more than $1,500.
Distressed by the drunk-driving arrest, Payan said the incident shows that, like the kids she works with around the Avenue, “I’m not perfect, either.”
Some of Payan’s supporters, however, see her as being about as close to perfect as they could hope for in a community leader. They speak of her as a model for the neighborhood children, a success story who has been honored as one of the county’s top Latino leaders.
For Payan, the process of turning her own troubled life around took hold in 1975, when she enrolled at Cal State Northridge while still on probation for her earlier assault and petty theft cases.
After two years of studies, Payan dropped out in search of a more active life than that of the classroom. Over the next 14 years, she worked part time for five years at Westpark under various directors, then left for more money as a teacher’s aide at nearby DeAnza Middle School. She later worked for the Ventura County Probation Department and for the California Youth Authority, where she spent nine years, the last few as a youth counselor.
In 1991, Jenise Wagar, a specialist in resource development for the city of Ventura, offered Payan a job as director of Westpark, Westview Village community center and the Cabrillo Village community center, over on the east side of town. Today, Payan makes $39,300 a year.
“I think I hired her because of her background,” Wagar said. “In order to be effective in gang prevention programs, you need to understand what kids are going through.
“Also, I probably hired her for her high energy level.”
Payan’s days begin as early as 5 a.m. and can end late into the evenings. Single and childless, Payan pours her emotional and intellectual energies into the troubled youths of the Avenue. For many of them, she is part mentor, part buddy, part mother.
“Roberta’s the kind of person who cares so much and wants to make a difference so much . . .,” Wagar said, searching for the phrase to describe her friend and co-worker. “Her job is her life.”
Three years into the job, however, the fear that lurks at the edge of Payan’s mind is that no matter how much she does, nothing is really going to get better.
“It’s kind of like you’ve got your finger in a dike,” she said with a sigh.
Payan recently attended a gang prevention conference in San Jose. On the ride back to Ventura, she complained to her friend that she didn’t seem to be making any headway in dissipating the violence and self-destructiveness of the Avenue youth. The problems seemed, if anything, to be increasing, she said.
“He said, ‘You need to take off that messiah robe--you’re not it,’ ” she recalled. “Nothing’s going to change in my lifetime. I can see that now.”
Payan stopped for a moment. She took a breath. She reconsidered.
This is all she knows, she said. This is what she loves. And if she stops doing it, who will?
“So many of these people, they don’t see any future in these kids,” she said. “They think they’ll fizzle out real soon.”
Ventura Police Capt. Jim Cubbitt runs the Avenue storefront, and he approaches the local youth-at-risk problem differently than Payan. He doesn’t work as closely with kids fresh out of juvenile hall and looks with a skeptical eye on “former gang members” promising to reform.
Tight-lipped and stern-faced, Cubbitt said he guesses that Payan “fills a need” in the neighborhood.
“It’s necessary to deal with gang members and wanna-bes in this community,” he said. “If somehow, through her counseling, she’s prevented one stabbing, one burglary, then she’s done something.”
Those who have worked for and with Payan would insist that she has accomplished much more.
“She’ll give you a chance when nobody else will,” Lovio said. “I was considered high-risk. I could’ve been in jail, on drugs. But, no, I stuck with it.
“Because she was, like, ‘No, don’t ever give up.’ ”