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Field of Dreams : Officer Helps Community Realize Goal for a Lot to Bloom With Soccer

July 24, 1994|GEOFF BOUCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wearing an uneasy smile and a corsage on her blue uniform, Officer Amanda Serrano waved politely when the crowd cheered her name, but it was obvious she wasn't caught up in the day's festivities to honor the opening of a Westlake youth soccer field.

"I'm just too nervous," the Los Angeles police officer said while watching scores of gleeful children romp across the field during the July 15 event. "This is our baby. I want everything to be just right."

The creation of the field atop a lot that had sat vacant for 14 years is being hailed by locals as a model of what can be done when private businesses, residents and the government work together.

And Serrano, they say, was right in the middle making things happen.

"She was the catalyst," said Paul Gamberg, president of a neighborhood association. "She was a fulcrum, a physical lever that made this happen . . . she reached out and picked the team that put this together. The quality of leadership that Mandy has is intention without reservation. She was a people-mover."

Serrano said residents had often told her that a field was needed to provide some recreation outlet for the children who live in the densely populated area. The closest park is three miles away, and many families don't have access to transportation.

When some locals suggested the site at 3rd and Bixel streets--a lot known years ago as Crown Hill that had become the site for homeless encampments--Serrano started knocking on doors and making phone calls.

The Ketchum Downtown YMCA was looking for a place to put a field, and it enlisted in the effort. Soon, Cathay City Development, the Hong Kong-based owners of the lot, were being called upon to temporarily donate the lot.

After a year's worth of legwork, the "Field of Dreams" organizers persuaded Cathay to let the parcel be converted into a soccer field until a development project comes along.

"A lot of people came together to make this happen," Serrano said. "I helped, but I certainly wasn't the only one."

For Serrano, the field is not just a playground, it's a haven. "The kids around here play soccer in the streets, and that's a prescription for trouble. It's a real simple formula."

The streets hold other dangers for youngsters, she said. The field will offer organized soccer leagues and lessons by October, after-school options that might keep some youths from finding their way into trouble with gangs or drugs.

Serrano, a four-year officer of the Rampart Division, is assigned to the department's Police Assisted Community Enhancement program. She and seven other senior lead officers in the division work closely with the community to find long-term answers to crime.

"The approach is to identify potential problems before they occur and find ways to get to the root of problems that already exist," said Sgt. Ralph McComb, Serrano's former supervisor who attended the soccer field opening. "With this project, she turned this trash heap place into something the community could be proud of."

The field was just the first phase of Serrano's plan for the neighborhood, which she describes as a troubled area with "dedicated, energetic residents that have a strong sense of community."

She also hopes to see a building being vacated by the Chamber of Commerce turn into a youth center by the end of the year. The office building, just a block away from the new soccer field, has a sprawling kitchen and indoor and outdoor dining areas.

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The site would be perfect for a community center to give area youths a place to study arts and crafts, get tutoring and even learn about photography in a planned photo darkroom. "It's almost a done deal," Serrano said.

The Northridge native left a career in banking to become a policewoman six years ago because she wanted to help children, she said. She hopes to someday become a child-abuse investigator, but in the meantime she said she will enjoy her community policing post's challenges.

"One of the advantages of my type of assignment is I don't just meet people who are suspects and victims. I get to encounter people in positive ways," Serrano said. "And it's rewarding when things get done."

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