Collaboration Gives Park-Poor Santa Ana Neighborhood Hope

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Members of the Santa Ana community group PODER organize a trash pickup for the neighborhood surrounding Roosevelt Elementary School on a recent weekend. (Photo by: Lauren Tyler)

Teresa Cuin wiped a tear as she acknowledged the realities that followed her chase of the American dream from Mexico to the eastside of Santa Ana.

Cuin moved into an apartment on Chestnut Street near Roosevelt Elementary School in the mid-1980s and has been there ever since, raising four children. Yet for a long time, she lived in fear of her neighborhood.

“I didn’t like for my kids to go outside. I didn’t even like to go outside to do exercise before. I was afraid,” said the 53-year-old Cuin.

Such feelings have not been uncommon among the mothers in the Roosevelt neighborhood. And even if they did overcome their worries of gang and drug violence and let their children go outside, there wasn't a place to play.

Historically, no public open space has existed in the half-mile radius surrounding the school, where 13,000 people live, many in poverty.

But some hope has emerged. Through a collaboration involving the city, the Santa Ana Unified School District and Latino Health Access, the grounds of Roosevelt Elementary have been opened to the public on weekends and soon will be throughout the week.

In addition, the city recently received $5 million in Proposition 84 money to both maintain the open space at Roosevelt and construct a 10,000 square-foot community center there. The grant money is expected to cover the cost of construction and maintenance.

Joint-use agreements are becoming more common in cities like Santa Ana, which are “built-out" to the point where most low-income residential areas have less than 1 percent of open space per 1,000 residents. The National Recreation and Parks Association recommends 10 acres per 1,000 residents.

“It’s a very creative way to approach it," said Gerardo Mouet, Santa Ana's parks and recreation director. It’s something I think built-out cities should do more of.”

It's also crucial for public health. Limited open spaces are a contributing factor to health issues like obesity and diabetes, according to the Healthy Eating, Active Community initiative, which is funded by the California Endowment and partners with Latino Health Access.

Santa Ana has the highest rate of overweight and obese children in Orange County — 35.5 percent, according to a report by the statewide, nonprofit City Project. Latino Health Access selected this site because of the area’s demographics and the lack of open space.

The issue is high on the priority lists of school officials as well.

Latino Health Access "came to me when I was principal of Walker Elementary. They wanted to make the people in the neighborhood aware,” said Roxanna Owings, Santa Ana Unified's director of curriculum and special projects. “We do have a lot of schools that sit on land that people want to use.”

In some instances cities and school districts will coordinate the agreements. Santa Ana already has an established program and various sites that share school properties with the public once school hours end.

“Cities don’t use their general funds to buy land for parks,” Mouet said.

That is the reason grant money from programs like the California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year initiative intended to improve the health of communities with high rates of obesity and diabetes, has become so important.

Construction on the Roosevelt project is not scheduled to begin until 2014. In the meantime, Latino Health Access allocated a portion of the $26 million from the Healthy Eating initiative that targets six sites in California meeting certain criteria.

An integral part of making these joint-use programs successful is creating a strong community base that will feel encouraged to make the space their own. “We provide the tools, the resources that will enable them to be civically involved,” said Dolores Gonzales-Hayes, director of policy at Latino Health Access.

“A lot of people live in apartments, so there’s not a lot of space. People really want to see this go beyond the one year pilot,” said Nancy Mejia of Latino Health Access. “I feel like this is really challenging the people that live there to see that they don’t need to wait to make change in their communities if their resources are available.”

There are other challenges facing the community members besides the lack of space and resources.

Meeting some of those challenges is a group that Cuin and a few other mothers from the Roosevelt neighborhood formed called PODER, which is the Spanish word for power. The group coordinates events and tries to encourage neighbors to take advantage of the new park space.

PODER organized a trash pickup in the neighborhood in early April. “It’s what I call the broken window theory,” Sergeant Manuel Chavez of the school district's police department. Each improvement to a neighborhood creates a new sense of pride and ownership, Chavez said.

“The objective is the same, to improve the quality of life,” he said.

Latino Health Access has strong hopes that this is only the beginning in the improvement of this community and its health.

“The purpose is to empower the community in whatever area. It’s their life, they live in this city and it’s their voice,” Gonzales-Hayes said. “The fear dissipates, the more civically engaged a community is, the better it is, holistically.”

But raising the level of community involvement remains a challenge for the mothers of PODER.

“We invite them, and they don’t come. They’re not interested,” Veronica Arrayo, another member of PODER said of members in her community. Her apartment building has 75 units with dismal looking hallways where cleaning is long overdue.

Arrayo has invited every family in the building to events, but few have joined her. “The people don’t go; there isn’t any support," Arrayo said. "A lot of people don’t want to help."

She said many people don’t want their children to leave the complex because the streets aren’t safe. Her daughter’s cell phone was stolen from her while she walked home from school one day.

“I didn’t report it because I’m afraid. They probably live close by,” she said.

“My kids are always stressed because the only place they have to play is the balcony,” Jessica Munoz, another member of PODER said. She lives in the same building as Arrayo.

Munoz's small balcony is crowded with toys. “My kids need a place that’s open for them to play. It would be good to have a park. There are so many kids here,” Munoz said as her children watched cartoons and finished their homework.

A bunk bed serves as the couch in the living room of their small apartment. “We’re always in here, closed up,” she said.

Cuin has come to believe that it's up to the parents of the neighborhood to break their families out of their confinement.

“All of the parents are responsible,” Cuin said. “Is that the American dream, to just let your kids get involved with drugs or gangs?

"Education starts in the home. Values begin here in the home,” she said. “If we don’t change our attitude, neither will our children.”

Lauren Tyler is a Voice of OC intern. You can contact her directly at elysetlr@gmail.com.

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