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Youths Ride Into Cyberspace : La Colonia: New computer center opens, giving youngsters in troubled neighborhood a haven of hope through technology.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The new computer center at El Centrito de La Colonia would not open for another 30 minutes, but by 3 p.m. Tuesday there were already half a dozen youngsters waiting patiently for the doors to admit them to the world of cyberspace.

Edgar Trejo, 10, of Oxnard didn’t mind the wait, sipping a soda and munching on chips. His younger brother, Jessee, 8, said he would rather play games on computers than play in the streets with his friends.

“When they opened El Centrito, kids saw the other face of life in La Colonia--they see they can get more from getting an education than selling drugs on the corner or getting involved in gangs,” said Francisco Vega, 17, a Channel Islands High School senior who was planning to do summer school homework on a computer.

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In an area troubled by pockets of poverty and gang violence, the computer center offers a retreat, a haven of hope in technology that might not otherwise be available to these Oxnard youngsters.

Begun less than two months ago at El Centrito de La Colonia community center, the program is already expected to expand, with a sixth computer, software programs and on-line access.

As many as 24 children and teen-agers use the computers each day in the former school site on Cooper Road, center officials said. The center is tucked in a corner of the aging, otherwise-empty building, a brightly decorated room surrounded by vacant rooms and faded paint.

“We’ve been flooded with a lot of kids, and some children have had to wait two hours to use a computer,” said Jose Figueroa, a retired computer program analyst who runs the program, which operates from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to guide them in the right direction and channel their energies in the right direction. The kids are interested, and we’re showing them that this will benefit them in school and later on in life,” Figueroa said.

Luann Rocha, co-director of the community organization, said the computer center offers hands-on experience to many children whose families cannot afford to buy a computer.

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“Here is a computer center in La Colonia and it’s for them,” Rocha said. “Some of the kids’ eyes were so huge when they saw the center.”

The first person in his family to use a computer, Vega said the new center is an invaluable resource. “Money’s too tight right now at the house to buy a computer,” he said. “The center is a great thing for La Colonia. English is my second language, and when I started to use the computer, I was looking more at the [computer’s] dictionary and vocabulary. It helps me with writing and talking to people.”

Juan Acosta, 13, said he has become so enthusiastic about computers that his mother may buy him one when he turns 18.

An Oxnard sixth-grader, Juan plays educational computer games--such as one that recreates pioneer travels on the Oregon Trail--and writes stories on the Bilingual Writing Center program. His latest masterpiece was a story titled “People” about characters who enjoy astronomy and reading.

Edgar Trejo, a fourth-grader, put his computer skills to use Tuesday by creating a flyer for his uncle’s disc jockey business. He has also printed forms for his father’s gardening business.

Rocha said the community lacked educational after-school activities. “The kids needed something to stimulate them” she said. “With the computers, they can play with educational tools and do their homework. It’s fun but, at the same time, they’re learning.”

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El Centrito de La Colonia bought the computers, printer and software through corporate and private foundation donations. Rocha estimates that the equipment purchases and staff salaries will cost $85,000 this year.

The nonprofit El Centrito de La Colonia opened in 1992 and offers dance, art, sports, tutoring, counseling and other programs to youth, families and farm workers of La Colonia.

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