Credit: Leon and Pearl Raya – RAYA Foundation.

I am writing in response to the article entitled, “Santa Ana City Council Must Include a Youth Center in this Year’s Budget,” written by Lucia Yletzara Gonzalez. I was surprised by the commentary that Santa Ana has no youth centers. I am a thirty plus year resident of Santa Ana and a retired Parks and Recreation professional who previously worked for the City of Santa Ana for seventeen years. I applaud the effort of the Santanero Project to seek and record the input of our youth, however, they did not know that our City has six community/recreation centers. The fact that the writer and survey participants are unaware of these centers does not mean that they are uninformed but rather speaks volumes to how the level of service at the recreation/community centers has fallen and their apparent lack of relevance in the community. The issue is not that the City does not have the facilities; it is that the City’s emphasis changed, and the role of parks and recreation and youth services has been diminished. Lately, the City has been attempting to reinvigorate these services, and has increased funding, but it is not enough.

While some recreation/community centers are more active than others, prior to the last ten years or so these facilities were hubs for a wide range of community and youth programs, including for teens and young adults. Residents knew they could go to the “rec” and find low-cost activities for their children. There were dances, field trips and leadership programs for teens. Several of the centers hosted senior citizen lunch and activity programs. Most were provided by the Recreation Department, sometimes in partnership with other agencies. They really were full-service community resources. Staff had close ties with residents, non-profits, neighborhood associations and the local schools. This service approach was a priority. However, due to financial constraints and a change in Council and Department priorities and direction, the role of these facilities changed. It now seems the centers host primarily fee based contracted classes.

I think part of the answer of how to provide increased services to youth, is to prioritize the role of these facilities as key community resources, especially as it pertains to teens and young adults. Some people advocate turning them over to nonprofits to operate; others say the operation model must be based on cost recovery of expenses. The answer is right under our noses and needs a combined approach. We need to understand the strengths and needs of our residents and then strategically determine how recreation services can once again serve an enhanced role in the positive development of youth and families and in the engagement of the community. The City can expand their services at the centers while collaborating with other service providers. What is needed is to increase the resources allocated to recreation services by using new, creative solutions, combined with some “old school” examples of success. With Santa Ana’s demographics and challenges, the elevation of Parks and Recreation as an essential service is paramount. This needs to be a long- term commitment and not merely short-term funding of the latest trend or politicians preferred fancy.

Of course, there needs to be a level of accountability for how the service providers use resources. Outcomes for improving the livability of our community need to be measured as well. And we need to ensure that those providing the service have the capacity and level of expertise to succeed. But the level of “data” collection should not be so consuming as to exhaust a sizable percentage of the resources. In my experience this was often a problem.

Additionally, it needs to be understood that accessible and affordable recreation services are only a part of the solution. Youth may spend a small amount of time in their entire day at a recreation activity or program. Agencies need to work in collaboration with one another so that youth and families are connected to the service or resource that is most beneficial to them. Not every family faces the same challenges or issues. Some may need more comprehensive services while others might just be looking for an affordable sports or dance program. Lately, there has been a disconnect among our youth sports organizations, youth serving non-profits and sadly, between the City Council and the Santa Ana Unified School District Board. And our residents suffer because of this.

Wherever I go I encounter adults, now in their forties, who stop and thank me for the memories and positive experiences from their days being involved in some “rec” program, whether it was a sport, an arts program, or a play. I have not put these engagements in any sort of database to serve as evidence of the importance of recreation and youth programs, but they tell me that I, my coworkers, and others made a difference. I acknowledge that for some that we served, the program or activity they participated in was not enough. Tragically, in the 1990’s I saw too many young men not make it past their early twenties due to their involvement with gangs or drugs. But far greater is the number of adults I have encountered who can point to an event, an activity, or an employee, that made a significant difference in their life. There is even one group that holds a reunion every year at El Salvador Park to reconnect, all based on their participation in a program hosted at that park.

Prioritizing and funding recreation and youth services is essential. Elevating our recreation/community centers in this effort is vital.

Leon Raya is a former Parks and Recreation Professional who recently retired after over 38 years of service working for the cities of Santa Ana, Buena Park, Garden Grove, and San Dimas.

He is President and Co-founder with his wife, Pearl, of the RAYA Foundation, a Santa Ana based non-profit whose mission is developing youth to be successful adults by providing positive athletic opportunities, academic success, and family support.

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