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On a Mission on Minnie St. : Three Women Move Into Troubled Area To Help Youngsters Find Their Way Out

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Poverty, drug deals and crowded apartments are commonplace on Minnie Street--a section of town most people try to leave as soon as they are able. But the neighborhood has drawn three women from Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania who now call it home.

They have moved into a donated, one-bedroom apartment on one of Orange County’s most troubled streets. There they offer young people Bible study classes, tutoring, field trips and much more.

They are, in effect, missionaries.

All three women had previously lived on Minnie Street during summer missionary programs sponsored by the nondenominational, San Clemente-based National Institute of Youth Ministry. But now they have found their way back to the street--more by serendipity than design--and plan to stay for an indefinite period, spreading their message every day, and in everyday ways.

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Their calling may seem anachronistic, but religious organizations have sent missionaries to U.S. cities such as Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles for years. In Orange County, the Youth Ministry has sent summertime missionaries to Garden Grove and two Santa Ana neighborhoods--including Minnie Street--for three years.

Besides the 225 Mormon missionaries now in Orange County, religious organizations say they know of no others who send full-time missionaries to Orange County.

The Minnie Street missionaries--two are 26, one is 25--are not formally associated with any religious organization, and all hold full-time office jobs.

They have college degrees in psychology, business and sociology, and have performed volunteer social work for various organizations throughout their lives. The women say they are motivated by a religious calling, and see living on Minnie Street as a logical extension of their past work.

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Every Wednesday night, they alternate between a Bible study class and an arts and crafts class, both for girls. Tuesdays are spent tutoring boys and girls. Sundays are reserved for church, although other weekend hours are spent taking children on field trips and on other activities such as neighborhood cleanups.

“We don’t preach to the children every time we see them--they don’t have to say Jesus to come through the door,” said 25-year-old Ellen Peirson, who, like the other women, is from a middle-class background. “But we’re examples. They know we go to church every Sunday.”

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Overall, the women cannot say whether their work so far has been successful or Quixotic. Rather, they dwell on the anecdotal; on the few people they feel they have touched.

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“It’s not a huge difference [they are making]--like a lot of numbers of people,” says Pennsylvania native Lisa Myers. “But in the lives of certain people, there’s been a big difference.”

Cathy Howie, who owns the property at 1029 Minnie St. along with her husband, Tom, said she donated an apartment to the women because she sees them as a stabilizing force. She tells of a teen-age girl from the neighborhood who she says the women encouraged to graduate from high school and pursue a college degree.

“They’re great mentors,” said Howie, who had asked that the women tutor the neighborhood children in exchange for the rent-free apartment. “They give the children somebody to look up to.”

Police Cpl. Steve Alegre, who oversees the police substation that opened on Minnie Street in August, is a bit more guarded about the changes the women may make. He said that in the short term, graffiti and gang activity probably will continue unabated because the women do not reach those members of the community. Rather, they tend to work with younger children who have not yet joined gangs.

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The test of their work, Alegre said, will be in the coming years, when the current crop of youngsters either opts to join gangs or pursue college degrees.

“It’s going to take a while for them to have an impact,” Alegre said. “But they will have an impact if they’re going to be able to touch the hearts and minds of the kids.”

“I saw so much need,” said Myers, referring to the violence and broken families she witnessed during the summer. Even now, she adds, “I haven’t been as successful as I have wanted to because there’s never enough time.”

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Myers decided to stay on Minnie Street after finishing the summer missionary program in 1994, and broached the idea with apartment owner Howie, who quickly assented.

Peirson, who attended the summer youth programs in 1994 and 1995, decided to return to Minnie Street after her second summer there, and moved in with Myers last February.

The third roommate, Minnesota native Joanne Sanders, first lived on Minnie Street during last summer’s Youth Ministry program.

She then left for Philadelphia to earn a degree in social work, but had a change of heart. So she looked up Peirson and moved back to California and into the apartment in October. “Thank goodness for friends,” she said.

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Sanders said she plans to move out when she is financially stable and plans to attend college in California. In the meantime, she is enjoying her stay on Minnie Street.

“Most of these people would like to get out of here,” she said. “And I could list all the negative things. But [the appeal] is so much more the joy and the children--if you could hear what they learned.”

Sanders works for the Olive Crest Treatment Center, while Myers runs teen programs for the Santa Ana Boys and Girls Club. Peirson is an administrator for Kidworks, the arm of the Youth Ministry that runs the summer missionary programs.

About half a dozen girls attend the Bible study and arts and crafts programs--held at the apartment--that the women have established on Minnie Street. About two dozen children attend the tutoring sessions, which are held at Mariners Church in Newport Beach. The church has donated money to the Youth Ministry and has facilities to accommodate the children.

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But simple, everyday things count just as much: loaning out children’s books, playing board games and listening to schoolyard adventure stories.

For some of the children, those activities fill a void.

When asked why he visits with the women, 15-year-old Gilbert Rodriguez answers flatly: “Because they have games and we don’t have any in our house.”

Why not, he is asked?

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“Because we can’t afford it,” he replies, a streak of anger in his voice.

Other obstacles facing the children on Minnie Street include crime and overcrowded housing. The area covered by the police substation is home to 12,000 people. And so far this year, the Police Department has received more than 225 calls about drugs, a rate higher than those in other areas of town, Police Lt. Charles Magdalena said.

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If the dozen or so children tumbling in and out of their apartment one recent Friday night is any indication, the women have been accepted by the neighborhood--or at least by its youngest residents.

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The gripes the women have about Minnie Street range from the minor--noise--to the major, such as their inability to staunch the flow of problems ranging from violence to school drop out rates.

But for now, those complaints are not enough to drive them away.

“We just kind of fell in love with the kids, and have an interest in making a change,” explained Peirson. “People on Minnie Street think we’re crazy. They say, ‘Why would you want to be here?’

“I don’t think I want to be here for life,” Peirson adds, “but for now, it’s a good place to be.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Hard Neighborhood

Santa Ana’s Minnie Street neighborhood is generally less diverse, poorer and less educated than the city as a whole. The housing stock tends to be older and smaller.

RACE

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Santa Ana Minnie Street White 24% 3% Latino 65 78 Asian 9 19 Black 2 -

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EDUCATION

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Less than high school

Santa Ana: 50%

Minnie Street: 81%

NATIVITY

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Foreign born

Santa Ana: 51%

Minnie Street: 72%

HOUSEHOLD INCOME

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Less than $25,000

Santa Ana: 32%

Minnie Street: 44%

Median (1989)

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Santa Ana: $35,162

Minnie Street: $27,921

Per-capita income (1989)

Santa Ana: $10,019

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Minnie Street: $5,196

Below poverty line (1989)

Santa Ana: 18%

Minnie Street:: 34%

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THE HOUSING

When built

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Santa Ana Minnie Street 1980 or later 18% 12% 1970-79 27 10 1960-69 25 58 1950-59 18 18 Before 1950 12 2

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Bedrooms

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Santa Ana Minnie Street None 7% 27% One 27 44 Two 32 12 Three 24 14 Four or more 10 3

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No complete plumbing facilities

Santa Ana: 1%

Minnie Street: 4%

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No complete kitchen facilities

Santa Ana: 2%

Minnie Street: 5%

No phone (occupied units)

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Santa Ana: 4%

Minnie Street: 11%

Median rent (1989)

Santa Ana: $736

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Minnie Street: $592

Source: U.S. Census


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