PANORAMA CITY — Growing up on Blythe Street, Gisel Valenzuela often wondered if there was more to life than dropping out of school and watching a steady stream of drug deals and drive-by shootings.
Maybe it was fate that intervened the day that the women of the Immaculate Heart Community--a nonprofit group made up of former nuns--rented an apartment house in her neighborhood, considered to be the most neglected in the San Fernando Valley.
First, they opened a community center that drew children such as Gisel like a magnet. They offered art classes, singing lessons, tutoring, a youth group and, most of all, a chance to see another side of life.
Now, two years later, Gisel has changed from a girl on the verge of delinquency to a self-sufficient, 17-year-old young woman. All who know her agree that it was Gisel who changed her life, but she maintains it was the people from the Immaculate Heart Community that gave her direction.
"When I was growing up, I was a little troublemaker," she said. "We would just hang around and do stupid things because we had nothing else to do."
That included throwing rocks at the windows of neighbors who were not kind to her, getting into fights or stealing her parents' car. She remembers feeling resentful toward the police at an early age because they would hassle her and her friends when they walked to a neighborhood store for milk, yet seemed to be nowhere in sight during shootings.
As a precocious 11-year-old, Gisel watched her father teach her mother how to drive and decided she could handle it. One day, when her parents were tending to her younger brother and sister, Gisel grabbed the keys to her parents' Buick Regal and headed out on her own.
"As soon as I started driving down the street, all my friends saw me," she recalled now with a smile. "They all jumped in and we went driving around."
She was never stopped by police, although her mother had reported the car stolen. Needless to say, Gisel was in big trouble when she finally arrived home three hours later.
"They said that I could have got in an accident and they would have been responsible," Gisel said. "I had friends with me and if there was an accident, they could have been hurt too."
She was grounded and lectured for that incident but continued to take the car for a few more joy rides before her parents figured it was not safe to let her near the car.
"I still have to use the bus or get a ride," she said.
With the onset of puberty, Gisel's escapades grew less mischievous and more self-destructive.
She dropped out of James Monroe High School halfway through her junior year. "It was boring and I wasn't interested in anything there," she said. "I wanted to do something different."
Gisel started hanging out on her street with gang members. Though she was never arrested, her parents became more and more concerned about her recklessness and circle of friends. Two years ago, they tried to take her away from it all when they traveled to Mexico for four months.
But she and her family returned to Blythe Street after their extended vacation. It was the summer the Immaculate Heart Community moved into the neighborhood.
"A lot of people had come here before saying they wanted to help us and nothing ever happened," Gisel said. "But when they moved in, I could see that they were serious."
First, she noticed the posted flyers around the neighborhood inviting the community to come visit the center. Then she noticed the other youths heading over there. Finally, she went to explore the apartment building that served as the community's central gathering place, named Casa Esperanza--or House of Hope.
"I checked it out to see what was happening," Gisel said. "There was sports, tutoring and art classes. We could just show up and take singing classes. It was fun."
Gisel not only enjoyed the free classes the center offered, but she wanted to be a part of it.
"She became really active in the center," said Albert Melena, adviser for the youth group. "She enjoyed organizing events, which helped her gain self-confidence. She showed herself that she could do something."
When the women noticed a leadership quality in Gisel, they offered her a job as a receptionist, teaching her to type and file, Melena said.
"I dropped out of high school because I didn't feel like I was doing anything," Gisel said. "But once I started working, school took on more importance to me."
Gisel signed up for Van Nuys Adult School, where she is in the home-study program enabling her to work toward her high school diploma at her own pace. She was able to get a better-paying job a few miles from her home as a clerical assistant and goes to work each day dressed in a professional-looking skirt and blouse instead of the tomboyish clothes she once favored.
She admits she still gets flak from her peers when she walks through the neighborhood dressed in her working clothes, but concedes it's worthwhile when one of them encourages her and offers support.
"I think they just want to see someone from the neighborhood make it," she said.
And most people think she will.
"She is a role model for other girls," said Melena, who has known her for more than a year. "Gisel is going to make it because she wants to make it. All she needed was a little support."