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Community Building : The year-old Salgado Center--the first on Santa Ana's west side--has become a magnet for young people. The city, say advocates, needs more like it.

January 13, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Years ago, when its planners tried to imagine who would benefit from a community center in Rosita Park in west Santa Ana, they might have pictured Eric Gomez.

Gomez, 13, is an eighth-grader at Irvine Intermediate School in Garden Grove. He began going to the Albert D. Salgado Community Center a few months after it opened last January.

Now he plays basketball in the center's gym every day after school. He serves as a teen volunteer, working with kids who drop by to play or do homework. And he's changed his mind about what he wants to wear.

"I just started dressing regular because when I used to dress baggy I didn't like it that much because a lot of the gangsters, they thought I was involved in a gang, but I wasn't. So I just stopped doing that and got involved with the gym."

Gomez says some of the teenage boys he knows have followed suit.

"Since they started coming here," he says, "they left those baggy pants and started being, I don't know, more friendly. . . . I don't think they bully [people] around no more because they have something to do and they feel better about themselves."

In the year since it opened, the Salgado Community Center has become a focal point in the lives not only of Eric and other teens, but also of people from many walks of life. Some 200 children, teens, adults and senior citizens use the center's gymnasium, game room, multipurpose room and outdoor lap pool each day.

The $3.3-million, 18,000 square-foot facility has become, in the words of one city official, the "pride of the community."

The center is also the site of school district meetings, cultural events and countywide amateur boxing matches. It has been rented out for weddings and first Holy Communion parties. There's been a baptism in the lap pool.

More than a dozen outside groups regularly use the facility: a coalition of labor unions holds a monthly breakfast forum; the Vietnamese Student Assn. of Orange County conducts tutoring sessions there every Sunday.

"We love the center, and we're happy to see the improvement in the community," says Roy Melcher of the Westend Community Oriented Police, a neighborhood crime-prevention organization that meets in the center's multipurpose room.

Melcher, a longtime Santa Ana resident, says that before the center was built "it was pretty rough at this particular location."

"The residents didn't like coming here. People don't want to go to parks if there's crime there."

While there used to be some gang activity in Rosita Park, Santa Ana Police Lt. Bill Tegeler says the biggest problem from a police perspective was that the park wasn't being used.

Now, he says, "there's something for the kids to come out for, and . . . parents can be confident that the kids are going to be safe here and [that] there are specific activities that they can take part in."

Tegeler says that the activities provided by a community center help prevent young people from joining gangs.

"Many times we tell them, 'Don't join a gang,' but we don't give them an alternative. So unless you give them an alternative, they're going to be getting into trouble, or who knows what they're going to be doing. One of the things the city wants to do is provide some positive outlets for the community, and this is a great example."

*

The Albert D. Salgado Community Center, named after a Santa Ana community activist who coached Little League, was a long time coming.

City Councilwoman Patricia A. McGuigan, a 34-year Santa Ana resident whose sons played Little League in Rosita Park in the '70s, says the center was in the planning stages when she joined the council in 1981.

"That's how long it takes to get one of these things built, to get the money for it," says McGuigan, who is more than pleased with the new center: "It's the pride of the community."

The long-awaited community center--the first to be built on the west side--has become a magnet for young people.

The lure?

Basketball, karate classes, indoor volleyball, aquatics and teen dances. The teen club and a family club also offer activities and excursions. Skateboarders even use the center's front sidewalk and parking lot curb to practice stunts.

"It's a great place for the kids," says Carmen Nunez, whose daughters, ages 12 and 13, and 8-year-old son are regulars. "We were waiting six months for it to be completed. We were wondering, 'What is this big building?' It's beautiful."

Visitors enter the modern white building with aqua-green and red trim through a domed lobby. To the right is the gymnasium with a full basketball court. Behind the front desk is a small room for playing table games and to the left is a multipurpose room with a kitchen. Outside in back is the four-lane lap pool.

Says director Juan Lara: "The center is a safe and fun location away from home where [young people] can spend as much time as they like, interact with friends and just know they're welcome here and [that] they'll be out of harm's way."

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