A program that has helped pump new life into a crumbling, aging Ventura Avenue neighborhood received a prestigious state award this month for its success in mobilizing a broad spectrum of the community.
The West Ventura Community Pride Project has won the California Parks and Recreation Society’s Special Award of Excellence in Recreation Programs, city officials said.
Because of the Pride Project:
* Resident green-thumbs meet on weekends to sow a community garden.
* Children who have never before molded clay take free ceramics classes at Westpark Recreation Center in the afternoons.
* The side wall of a liquor store, once a prime target for graffiti vandals, now sports a teen-painted mural that taggers have yet to deface.
* And adolescents attend neighborhood peer counseling sessions, students of all ages receive tutoring at Westpark and parents and their teen-agers meet for coping sessions once a week at the Ventura Avenue Senior-Adult Center.
“People are realizing they can change things in their area that, before, they didn’t think they could change,” said Roberta Payan, the director at Westpark and the coordinator of the Pride Project.
Started in 1993, the project has coincided in the past year with a political movement to bring more city services and attention to the Avenue area--a community bedeviled with increasing crime and a corroding infrastructure.
Together, the project and the Westside Community Council have brought a new sense of energy and possibility to Ventura’s oldest community, residents say.
“The spirit’s always been here, but I think it was a matter of people waiting for something to happen,” said Michael LaRouche, whose grandfather owns Avenue Hardware and who lives in the area.
“Now you see the murals up, there’s more police involvement. It’s really hopeful.”
Ventura also received another Parks and Recreation Society award for the redesign of the Ventura Pier, which was completed in 1993.
Debbie Solomon, a city spokeswoman, said officials were delighted but surprised to win in both categories.
“It’s so extremely rare and prestigious to get both,” she said.
The Pride Project started as a result of the city’s desire to hold parenting classes on the west side.
Payan, new on the job as director of Westpark Recreational Center, scrambled to meet the mandate. She hired a therapist, organized group seminars and waited for the community to attend.
Today, she laughs at the memory.
“Nobody showed up,” she said. “If we had given away trips to Hawaii, nobody would’ve shown up.”
So instead, she met with an old acquaintance, Bennie Crayton, who works for the county’s alcohol and drug program, and together they designed a new type of counseling activity--splitting residents into smaller groups and training community members as crisis counselors.
“It’s my bias that you can’t work with families without working with the environment that supports them,” Crayton said.
The resulting program, La Familia, matches about six to 10 sets of parents with a counselor for six weekly sessions of intensive counseling and instruction on how to be effective parents.
Mary Ann Morales, who has coordinated La Familia since October, recently started inviting the parents’ teen-age children to the sessions as well.
“They are learning what it takes to be a parent,” she said.
Soon, with the help of county grants, Payan began piecing together a patchwork of community-centered projects. Mark Summa, who also works for County Alcohol and Drug Programs, scrounged to deliver the funds.
They commissioned artists to help children paint anti-drug and anti-alcohol murals on blank walls. They organized tutorials, passed out “Say No to Drugs” visors and arranged for the art classes, the trash pickup days, the counseling sessions and the community garden.
“For me, it’s been really exciting, because I have a strong belief that alcohol and other drug problems really affect other aspects of a community’s life,” Summa said. “By bringing people together and letting them look at these issues through a variety of different perspectives, we can really begin to impact the problem.”
Two years since La Familia held its first session, the Pride Project is continuing to make inroads in a neighborhood that many outsiders once shrugged off as hopelessly deteriorated.
“It’s like, get off your butt,” Payan, in her typically blunt way, says of the possibilities the project offers residents. “Here’s your opportunity, right in front of your face.”