Even just passing through, it is easy to see Pacoima's rough edges. Storefronts marred with graffiti, homes with bars on the doors. Its neighborhoods are the poorest, most crowded in the suburban San Fernando Valley. More than one-third of its residents are under 18, and most of their families live in poverty. Outside of its environs, the name Pacoima is synonymous with gangs, drugs and crime.
It wasn't always that way. Fifty years ago, when restrictive housing covenants kept blacks locked out of the burgeoning Valley, Pacoima--with its "Joe Louis" tracts--was one place black families could buy a piece of the suburban dream. As those families grew up and moved away, immigrant families took their place.
Chris and Kelley Richards remember that past. When they were kids in Pacoima, families didn't hunker down behind barred doors but looked out after each other. Now, the young couple is trying to restore that feeling.
"Most of the people who have had a chance to make it out of Pacoima did it through sports," says Chris, 35. You could count him among them. A standout football player at the local high school, he won an athletic scholarship to college. Back then, drugs, gangs ... they were around, but athletes were likely to be left alone.
But the murder of a popular athlete--a young man Chris had coached--at a local park four years ago was a wake-up call to the couple. They realized that sports were like the keys to a door; there had to be something more on the other side. And the Pacoima Athletic Club was born in their living room.
Today it serves 1,000 kids. That first year, 100 signed up for the club's football, baseball, basketball, track and cheerleading teams. What they got was more than coaching and uniforms, but lessons in what it takes to succeed off the field, as well.
"Sports is the catchall to get the kids and their families interested," Chris says. "But an athletic program today needs to do more than provide just the sports aspect."
Call it holistic, as Kelly, 34, does, drawing on her social worker vocabulary. They offer not just sports instruction, but counseling, tutoring, help with college and job applications. There are study sessions and report card checks, and any athlete whose grades aren't up to par has to submit to daily tutoring.
They feel especially motivated to help kids with special needs, particularly those whose emotional problems or behavior have made them outcasts in other sports leagues.
Much has been made of the redemptive power of sports. They keep kids busy and off the streets, foster discipline, sportsmanship and camaraderie, can even break down barriers between ethnic groups and provide a route out of poverty. But these kids need more.
They need a vision of themselves that transcends the streets. They need to understand that growing up in Pacoima doesn't mean you can't succeed. And that success isn't defined by how many tackles you make or jump shots you sink.
"They need to see that, yes, there are obstacles, but they can be overcome," Chris said. "And that you have to be prepared for every opportunity."
Chris and Kelley are no strangers to struggle, or to opportunity. They were high school sweethearts whose lives could have been derailed when Kelley got pregnant at 17. Instead, they got married. But both were determined to go to college. He graduated from Berkeley and then played briefly with the Rams; she graduated from Cal State Northridge. They were both the first in their family to earn degrees.
Today, they have four children, and she works as a social worker, he as a coach and English teacher at Monroe High.
And while they could have settled in any suburban neighborhood, both felt strongly about coming home to the community that nurtured their dreams. "People say, 'Why do you live there? It's so dangerous,"' said Kelley. "But these kids need role models. We know the struggles they're going through, because we faced them too."
The Pacoima Athletic Club is a shoestring operation. There is no office and not a single paid staff member. More than 100 people--mostly parents, community residents and Chris and Kelley's friends and co-workers--donate their time, tutoring, coaching, helping to raise funds. Monroe High donates playing fields and office place for tutoring and counseling.
Every night, Chris and Kelley and their family make the rounds of sports venues, checking on the kids. And every weekend, they run the snack bar, keep score, tape ankles ... whatever jobs need doing.
They rely on donations, small grants and the kind of fund-raisers that have always kept community groups afloat--raffles, candy sales, carnivals, barbecue dinners--to raise the $60,000 it costs to buy equipment, uniforms, trophies and rent fields each year.
For the first time this year, there weren't enough resources to cover all the kids who wanted to play, and so they had to put some on a waiting list. More money and volunteers would be nice, but the future of the program lies in the hands of the hundreds of children who've come through the club.
"The kids who've gone off to college always say, 'Thank you. How can we ever repay you?"' Kelley says. "Chris tells them, 'Get your education. Come back and help 10 kids. And don't ever forget where you come from."'