Like a knight on a white horse charging to the rescue, here comes the Mobile Recreation Van.
Sporting a new coat of white paint and fully stocked with games, balls, tables, chairs, arts-and-crafts supplies, juice and snacks, the van is the first of its kind in Central Los Angeles.
Westlake and its surrounding neighborhoods have few recreation facilities, so the city's Department of Recreation and Parks decided to bring its fun and games to the area's children.
"The people who live in this community say it's overdue," said Joe Munn, the recreation assistant who operates the program with Leticia Hernandez. "Until now, the kids had nothing to do."
On Mondays and Wednesdays, the van rolls into Lafayette Park, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays it is at MacArthur Park. The program runs from 3 to 5 p.m. each day. Neither park had an organized recreation program until now.
The program, which began in February, has helped parents and children reclaim the parks little by little from drug dealers and other nefarious characters.
"At first, I was a little uncomfortable, but we found that if you get the kids here, the negative element won't come," Munn said. "We haven't had any problems. It's been real positive."
The Police Department's Rampart Division has also stepped up its presence in MacArthur Park, a move that has improved safety there, according to Nick Salicos, the division's new captain.
Some of the children who participate are from families without a regular home, Munn said, and may even sleep in the parks on occasion. "This gives them an opportunity to take their minds off things for a couple of hours," he said.
So far, the program has drawn about 50 youths a day. At Lafayette Park, Munn organizes three-on-three basketball games for teen-agers and young adults.
At MacArthur Park one day last week, two students from Vermont Avenue Elementary School, Danetria Smith, 7, and Demetrius Evans, 9, squared off in a battle of Connect Four, a vertical checkers game in which the players drop their tokens in a slot with the aim of getting four in a row.
"I'm gonna win you this time, so don't even think about it," Danetria warned her opponent.
"You're not going to win, little girl," Demetrius countered.
The competition raged fast and furious, so much so that the players forgot whose turn it was and the game ended in a dispute. A rematch ensued and they continued with their good-natured trash-talking.
At another table, Reggie Ross, 12, demonstrated his understanding of applied physics in Carrom, a pool-like game. "There're a lot of games here. I like it," he said.
Several other children made puppets out of pieces of fuzz and sticks, or manufactured heart-shaped coin purses, carefully threading the plastic twine through the punched holes. A few parents volunteered assistance and encouragement.
"We can always use more volunteers or donated supplies," said Manuel A. Mollinedo, the department's assistant general manager.
The pilot program runs on a shoe-string budget of just over $50,000 for the van, the two staff members and the games, equipment and supplies. The money has been shifted from other programs in the department.
Jackie Tatum, the department's general manager, is seeking corporate backing to expand the program to other parks and neighborhoods and perhaps broaden it to include mobile computer or job-training classes.
"The best part about this program is that we're serving an underserved population and it's bringing families back to the parks," Mollinedo said.