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Ventura County

Firing of Beloved Youth Director Angers Parents

Oxnard Boys & Girls branch is closing for renovation, and its chief loses his job after three decades at the club. Residents fume.

December 24, 2002|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

For 33 years, Ruben Herrera had quietly helped mold the lives of kids at the bustling Boys & Girls Club in downtown Oxnard.

Known to some as Grandpa Ruben, he was a second father to boys whose dads disappeared long ago. He was the coach who taught girls their first lessons on the basketball court.

Then, without warning, his bosses recently told the 53-year-old Herrera that the club was being renovated, and he had to go. Herrera, the director of the 7th Street club, was given a few hours to hand over his keys and clear his office, leaving the only job he'd held as an adult.

He and three other employees will be paid until Jan. 3 and can reapply for their jobs when the club reopens, in perhaps a year, officials said.

"I'm still in shock," said the soft-spoken Herrera. "They say it's OK to keep coaching as a volunteer, so I'll finish out the season. They're like my kids. I can't give up on them just because I'm not getting a paycheck."

Earning about $33,000 a year, Herrera said the job was "never about the money." He began at the Boys & Girls Club as a 19-year-old summer employee, but somewhere along the line he decided it was the place he would retire.

Now, he talks about unemployment benefits, and says he has no idea where he'll work next.

His employers are not talking about why they terminated Herrera so abruptly, and he says he's too stunned to be angry. But plenty of parents and children are furious. They're asking anyone in a position of authority over the club to allow the coach to stay. They've gone to City Hall, written letters to local state legislators, and his teams are vowing not to play for anyone but Herrera.

"He put his whole life into this and taught us so much," said Andrea Covarrubias, 18, whom Herrera has coached since the first grade. "Everything we have here is because of Ruben. It's just unfair that you can do this to him after all he's put into this place."

Boys & Girls Club officials say the 50-year-old building on 7th Street is run-down. They need to close it to begin renovating the gymnasium, fixing bathrooms and leaks, and building a computer lab. The children can go to two other nearby Boys & Girls Clubs in Oxnard and Port Hueneme while their facility is renovated, officials said.

The relocation is temporary, they say, and there are currently no available staff positions to offer Herrera or the other 7th Street employees.

"I know the perception is that we wanted to fire a guy," said Anthony Volante, vice president of the club's board of directors. "That's not the case at all. I know it might not seem like it, but we really just had no place for him."

But parents aren't buying it. They say the staff's dismissal is a sign that board members have no plans to reopen their children's home away from home. They don't see how the board can raise the money -- up to $1 million -- it could cost to renovate the building by late next year. But most of all, they can't imagine a 7th Street club without Herrera.

"They're telling us it's no big deal because we can go to another club, but what they don't understand is that this is family here," said Anita Lemos, a preschool teacher who spent her childhood afternoons at the club and now volunteers as a basketball coach.

"He helped raise me," Lemos said. "You'll see people who grew up here and now they have kids and they come back. It's because of Ruben."

Club officials said the decision to let Herrera go was difficult but necessary in order to move the club forward. The renovations will make it a club worthy of the more than 400 members who use it, officials said.

"One individual does not make an institution," said Tim Blaylock, the club's chief operating officer for the Oxnard area. "This organization is far greater than any one of us that work here. The institution will survive."

But the kids, and especially the parents whose trust Herrera has earned through the years, disagree. They're considering pulling out of the organization entirely.

"I'm torn," said Gina Acosta, a parent and volunteer coach. "What lesson do I teach my daughter here? Do I pull her out of basketball, which she loves, to prove a point, or what?"

At the club recently, children and parents waited anxiously for Herrera to show up for basketball practice. The slight man with white hair did his best to give his last days some semblance of normalcy, but the signs of change were already everywhere.

Herrera's office, normally wallpapered with pictures of children at the club, at graduation or prom, had been stripped bare. The locks had been changed.

Parents clustered into circles and discussed what kind of a going-away gift would be appropriate for the coach. Children glued together sheets of paper to make Herrera a goodbye card. In bright colors, they had written "Ruben," and signed their names.

In his empty office, Herrera choked up just a little when asked what parting words he will leave with his kids.

"I'll tell them it was a privilege working with them," Herrera said. "I probably got as much from them as they got from me."

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