ON HER FIRST day back at the Aliso-Pico Recreation Center after a four-year break, Joyce Nishimuro nearly turned around and returned home.
"I had left a park that was standing," recalls Nishimuro, 42, director of the tiny, concrete-bound recreation center near the Aliso-Pico housing project in Boyle Heights. "When I came back, it was totally gutted. There were no services, no equipment, no programs. It was surrounded by gangs and graffiti; plus it was filthy."
Aliso-Pico may have no rolling green lawns or stately shade trees, but because of Nishimuro's herculean efforts, now it is one of the most successful parks in the city. Every week, more than 850 children participate in the center's 19 sports, cultural and academic programs. And although crime has risen in the area, Los Angeles police say it rarely enters the park's boundaries.
"If you're talking about the park that means most to its people," says Recreation and Parks Department Supt. Jack Perez, "Aliso-Pico has saved lives."
Getting to that point, however, took unusual creativity and persistence on the part of Nishimuro, a former businesswoman in international trade who switched to recreation 12 years ago because of her love for children.
When she first arrived at Aliso-Pico, which serves a predominantly poor Latino community, Nishimuro recalls, the center had "no money, no supplies, nothing." She managed to "beg, borrow, and steal" enough money to put together some recreation programs for the area's children. And in the process, she became a mentor, role model and adviser to the Aliso-Pico kids. Two years later, in 1976, when she became disenchanted with the inequities in the parks system, she decided to take a break. Although the children called her at home and begged her to return, she quit.
But in 1980, Nishimuro decided to give the park another shot. Nothing, however, had prepared her for the appalling conditions wrought by the Proposition 13 budget ax.
Nishimuro vowed to create quality programs and bring in top instructors. But the department's traditional fund-raising method--charging fees for classes--was out of the question in an underprivileged neighborhood such as Boyle Heights.
"In housing projects, we can't charge $25 for baseball," Nishimuro explains. "If they can only pay a quarter a week, are we supposed to throw these kids out on the street?"
Realizing that city funding was not enough, Nishimuro enlisted the help of community businesses, wining and dining businessmen with her own money and convincing them, she says, that if they take money out of these communities, they need to put it back.
Thus, in 1981 the Aliso-Pico Business Community Inc. was born. It is a nonprofit corporation with a board of directors made up of local business people. The board funds all of the programs at the center and determines how the money should be spent.
City funds for the park cover only Nishimuro's salary and those of her recreation director and three recreation assistants, she says. The board provides the rest, but neither Nishimuro nor the corporation's treasurer, Jeff Koppelman, will reveal the budget. Because Nishimuro raises funds on her own time, the Recreation and Parks Department has less control over Aliso-Pico than over other recreation centers it supervises, Nishimuro says. That is, the city can't dictate how the corporation's money should be used.
So far, Aliso-Pico is the only park in the city's system set up this way. But Nishimuro says she saw no other options. "The only way to have this program was to create a business, and the business is services for children," she says.
These days, the park is running as many programs as its modest facilities--one gym, one baseball diamond, one tennis court and a few basketball courts--can handle. There are a preschool program, judo and dance classes, a popular gymnastics program and a basketball league, as well as flag football, tennis and school tutoring. All the programs are goal-oriented, Nishimuro says, to give the children something to work toward, such as the annual spring dance recital.
Also, plans are under way to expand the center by adding another facility, which will include an arts and crafts room, theater and more classrooms. These additions are being financed by a number of sources, including the city.
Twelve-year-old Nicole Gutierrez, who says she has been coming to Aliso-Pico since she was 3, credits Nishimuro with teaching her about "what was right and wrong."
"Joyce cares about all the kids that come here," says Nicole, who is at the center after school almost every day. "She likes to keep us out of trouble."
Nishimuro has tried to ensure a new generation of community involvement by encouraging Aliso-Pico's patrons to maintain their ties to the center as they get older. Volunteer baseball coach Joe Diaz, 16, also leads the park's "Dickerson Rangers," a just-say-no to drugs program founded by football star Eric Dickerson. Joe began coming to Aliso-Pico with his eight brothers when he was a child.
Orlando Martinez, a 22-year-old former gang member and the only male in Aliso-Pico's dance classes, coaches an Aliso-Pico basketball team. "Before," Martinez says, "I used to hang around with the wrong crowd. As soon as Joyce started working here, things started changing. If it wasn't for her, it wouldn't be home."
"The hardest thing I fight (for) is to create a youngster who is positive, who will stand up and fight again once something goes wrong in his life," Nishimuro says. "If we could save 10 kids a year, at least we're going somewhere in a positive direction."