The Lutheran minister with the shy smile, gentle voice and Mister Rogers sweater was an unlikely figure in the challenged Santa Ana neighborhood surrounding his church.
But Jon Pedersen, pastor at St. Peter Lutheran Church for 12 years, came to feel at home there. His recent departure for a new assignment in Illinois has dealt a loss to the Willard community, so known because of the Willard Intermediate School at its heart.
Pedersen took on a leadership role in 2011 when he formed the Willard Task Force for Transformation and brought together representatives from government, police, education and nonprofit organizations. Pedersen’s goal was to align the myriad discrete efforts to turn around the neighborhood.
“It was a matter of getting all the right people and working together. Jon was that guy,” said Kevin Brown, a minister who served on the task force and was involved in stabilizing Cedar Evergreen and Bishop Manor neighborhoods.
Before the task force was formed, Brown and Pedersen had spent numerous nights together walking Santa Ana’s streets as part of Lives Worth Saving, a gang intervention ministry.
Brown is among many community leaders who say Pedersen’s leadership was bringing slow but steady relief to a highly challenged area. Willard has long been notorious for being first — in absence of park space, academic under-performance and percentage of low-income homes headed by single parents.
'From Kids Playing Ball to Moms With Strollers'
A former missionary in Nicaragua, Pedersen endeared himself to the community by speaking Spanish, according to Marissa Presley, prevention education specialist at Laura’s House, a shelter for domestic violence victims.
Presley and Pedersen began working together two years ago to raise awareness of domestic violence in the Willard neighborhood. Santa Ana rates among the top cites in the state for calls to police on domestic violence with 3,731 calls in 2012, more than in Oakland, San Francisco and Long Beach, according to Kidsdata.org.
Pedersen sought to take information about domestic violence to families directly by bringing Presley, who is bilingual and grew up in Willard, into their homes. Working with apartment managers or church members who lived in the buildings near St. Peter’s, they held informational workshops on domestic violence that Presley described as “lifting the veil.”
“Nobody wants to talk about domestic violence; it is still taboo to this day," Presley said. “There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment, so we came to them, in their home, in their back yard, in hallways. People literally opened up their apartments and moved furniture out so they could make enough room."
One of Presley’s fondest memories of Pedersen is walking together in the neighborhood and seeing people’s responses to him.
“Everybody from kids playing basketball to moms with strollers to men working — everyone said hi to him," she recalled. "It seemed he was well-respected and liked. We’re talking about one of the hardest areas of Santa Ana.”
Pedersen was instrumental in revamping and expanding the preschool based at St. Peter’s, bringing in Santa Ana College to oversee it.
“The fact that little ones in that neighborhood have a really strong, safe, well-organized and -resourced preschool program is enormous,” said Willard Principal Lisa Hinshaw.
But the preschool was only one of Pedersen’s forays into education. Pedersen taught math at Willard for three years, meeting students and parents to understand their concerns. He and others eventually became frustrated with the high turnover in Willard's leadership.
According to Hinshaw, Pedersen and other teachers began talking openly of converting Willard to a charter school to better serve the students, known for having the worst state test scores of any middle school in the county.
Their activism was one reason that Santa Ana Unified School District administrators appointed Hinshaw, a veteran principal, to the helm, she said.
“When rumors about a possible charter leaked out, it got people’s attention,” Hinshaw said.
Meanwhile, Willard is improving in a number of measures. In the 2012-13 school year, the average daily attendance increased by 0.51. That figure may sound low, but it is actually significant — three times more than at any other intermediate school in the district, Hinshaw said.
Further, students are all getting use of mini-tablet computers loaded with academic apps. Last year, a new children’s playground, playing field and running track were completed at Willard, with help from the city. These will be available to the community for organized sports on weekends.
“We’ve stopped the bleeding,” said Hinshaw, who this month was named Administrator of the Year for middle grades in Orange County by the Association of California School Administrators.
Pedersen allowed young people to congregate on church grounds after school, because he understood that apartments were crowded. The density level of some Willard streets is 39,000 people per square mile, according to census data.
He also knew that some homes were not safe. Members of his church’s youth group had acknowledged incidents of sexual abuse that were quite possibly a byproduct of parents working long hours and leaving kids in apartments shared by extended family and strangers.
“Anecdotally, we’re two, three, four times the national statistic. We live in a neighborhood that is a perfect storm for sexual abuse against children,” Pedersen said.
To help alleviate the problems of life in crowded high rises, Pedersen teamed with affordable housing developer Barry Cottle. With assistance from Scott Kutner, district manager for the city’s Community Development Agency, they contacted apartment building owners about making their buildings safer and more livable. While most property owners were unresponsive, a handful showed interest.
Some went on to install more lighting and erase gang graffiti in the buildings. Pedersen, Cottle and Kutner also encouraged managers to discourage crowding and not turn a blind eye to suspected drug dealing in the buildings.
Kutner hopes to organize a neighborhood cleanup next. He is leading the Willard task force until a new pastor is appointed at St. Peter.
Meanwhile, Pedersen is becoming acclimated to his new church and cold temperatures. He takes memories of Willard with him, some of them marked sadly by “brokenness and bad decisions.” And yet, he is quick to add, there is also inspiration.
“There’s joy around. There are families that are incredibly stable and fun," he said. "They seem to make the best of it. In the middle of it all, there’s success, and if you want a definition of miracle, that’s it.”
Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine literary journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.