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Empowerment to the People

With federal cash and civic determination, a medical office has already been turned into a day-care center for city's poorest workers.


Hands Together, a Center for Children, is the first tangible result of the Santa Ana Empowerment Zone, one of 15 areas nationwide that will receive $100 million over the next 10 years.

Over a brief one-year period, a former medical office in downtown Santa Ana has been transformed with $250,000 of Empowerment Zone funds into a pristine children's day-care center that will eventually serve 84 kids in Orange County's poorest ZIP Code, 92701.

According to U.S. Census data, 85% of the families in the area live below the poverty line, and with a median age of 26, the neighborhood has one of the youngest populations in the country.

"We're in a community where the children have been left with multiple family members [for day care]," said Rheta Negretee-Karwin, director of the center. "Children need to be in an environment that not only understands their emotional needs but that also encourages them to grow . . . with reading, singing and just responding to their nonverbal communication."

The center, now serving 24 children, provides bilingual instruction, health screenings and literacy and development programs. A recent $60,000 grant from the Sisters of St. Joseph will provide for the care of an additional 17 children whose parents earn too much to qualify for assistance. Parishioners from the Episcopal Church of the Messiah have pledged $250,000 over the next four years to fund day-care services.

"A definite goal of this project is that it's going to serve the Santa Ana Empowerment Zone to really improve the downtown center," the Rev. Diane Bruce said. "To help 84 kids at any given time to give them a leg up . . . it's miraculous."

The center was born when parishioners from the 115-year-old church in downtown Santa Ana noticed the building across the street was for lease and began discussing what could be done with it, Bruce said.

Soon, a coalition of community groups--the Sisters of St. Joseph, Taller San Jose, the Noah Project, the John Tracy Clinic, St. Joseph Hospital and representatives from the Empowerment Zone--determined the greatest neighborhood need was for good day care for the working poor.

"The hallmark of this project is the collaboration of the groups that are concerned about the lives and the children in Santa Ana," Bruce said. "We couldn't have made this happen in a year without everybody working together."

Chris Ceballos can be reached at (714) 966-7440.

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