Standing near a large barbecue filled with corn tortillas and slices of carne asada, Ernesto Vallejos said the people who frequent the El Modena Community Center are at “the beginning of a new era.”
For many in this predominantly Latino neighborhood, the center is like a second home where they can take English classes, play bingo, receive free meals, have Boy Scout meetings and even learn new things such as kick-boxing.
Mostly, they receive support and feel safe.
“People feel that they are welcome here,” said Vallejos, the center’s director. “This is their home.”
On Saturday, more than 300 people, ranging from grandparents to young children and even a few gang members, gathered inside the peach-colored stucco building for an open house celebrating the newly improved facility, which recently underwent a dramatic $252,000 expansion.
Vallejos said the popular center is a neutral territory for the neighborhood’s two gangs, which formed a tenuous truce nearly three years ago. This uncommon arrangement enables rival gang members to gather peaceably at the center for recreational activities, job training and high school classes.
Since the area’s schools often are in rival gang territory, some gang members who want to finish their education come to the center for classes. As part of the high school continuation program, students must also participate in job training and go to work after class.
“This is a safe place to be,” said Cindy Borcoman of the Orange County Department of Education. “A lot of these kids can’t be anywhere else in the community. And the best part of this is that the kids aren’t just taking, they are giving back to the community.”
Bob Pusavat, the county’s director of housing and redevelopment, has played a leading role in the rebirth of the community center, which opened in 1979 but was deteriorating until the county took over operations four years ago.
“We need more of these kinds of facilities rather than building new jails,” Pusavat said. “Four years ago, I took [rival gang members] to the mountains because I didn’t know any better. I told them that they needed to have jobs and finish school. You have gangs when the young people get together and have nothing to do.”
Pusavat grew tearful Saturday as he talked quietly about the center and the people in the neighborhood and how life has gotten better.
“This community has suffered so much,” Pusavat said. “But things have improved tremendously. You don’t see graffiti or violence except here and there.”
Pusavat pushed hard for the county grant that paid for the expansion. He stood Saturday next to Supervisor William G. Steiner, who presented framed certificates to several of the center’s volunteers and unveiled a dedication plaque.
“This is a great celebration,” Steiner said. “It’s a great support for the community. This is one of the bright spots that is happening in the community. You hear about so many of the bad things.”
The community center has an entirely new 1,500-square-foot wing, which will mean more room for services and activities for the neighborhood’s 3,500 residents. A new outdoor handball court has also been built.
Among the programs that have been expanded are food distribution for needy families, English as a second language classes, senior citizen programs and a kick-boxing program for youths.
Adolpho Rivera, who teaches the kick-boxing classes, said he tries to teach the youngsters more than martial arts.
“They find family ties in a gang so we try to do the same thing here,” Rivera said. “But this is a good gang where we teach them respect, discipline, honor and value. I believe that a kid who can learn that will be a good man in the future.”
Among those who have benefited from the kick-boxing and the center is 17-year-old Junior Jimenez.
“We stay out of the streets,” Jimenez said. “We work out, play handball. It’s like a second home. A first home really.”
Mike Magana, 14, lives across the street from the community center and said he’s been going there “all my life.”
“There’s nice people here and they care about you,” he said. “I come here every day. I’d probably be in some kind of trouble if I didn’t.”