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A Center Built With a Dream

Opening: Watts facility will bear the name of its godfather, who died earlier this month.

June 28, 2002|ANTHONY McCARTNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was impossible to separate Roy Roberts II from the new brick and glass building that had been his dream. For more than 10 years, he struggled to give the children of Watts a new community center to replace the old one.

Everyone tried to smile when they cut the red ribbon to dedicate the new Boys & Girls Club on Thursday morning, but a note of sadness lingered because Roberts wasn't holding the scissors.

Roberts died of a heart attack June 3, three weeks before the doors were flung open and a community he'd served for 27 years was allowed inside.

Jose Luviano, a 21-year-old Air Force senior airman was halfway through his speech about the old center and "Mr. Roy" when tears stole his voice. A pair of hands landed on Luviano's shoulders, the audience applauded, and he continued.

"Mr. Roy's dream will live on," he said. "And that alone is enough to put a smile on a soldier's face."

Luviano, who recently returned from an assignment in Kyrgyzstan for Operation Enduring Freedom, later recounted the afternoons spent playing basketball, dodging falling ceiling tiles. There were worse things on the streets, like gangs.

The club was always "a place where you didn't have to worry about much," he said. "Mr. Roy kept everybody focused on the big picture."Days after Roberts died, the club's board of directors decided the new 28,000-square-foot building should bear Roberts' name along with its formal name, the S. Mark Taper Foundation Youth Center.

At the dedication, a temporary banner touted the Roy W. Roberts II Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club.

It was the second time Roberts forced a name change. In 1975, shortly after he was hired as the club's executive director, women finally were allowed to join the club, which opened in 1957.

Margaret Williams, who has taught the club's quilting class, said before then, "the girls were always peeking around, trying to get in. And of course, the boys were always looking back at them."

Williams and about 200 others toured the arts and crafts room, the exercise room, as well as the computer lab and library.

Plenty still is missing from the new building, which was built piecemeal as Roberts and others raised money.

They broke ground in 1999, but the new building could not open until Roberts and his staff raised $5.3 million.

When it officially opens July 8, it will have cost roughly $7.2 million, but the club hopes to go from serving roughly 1,000 area youngsters per year to at least 4,000.

Rising costs always seemed to outpace Roberts' fund-raising, longtime friend and Board President Clif Johnson said.

Every Wednesday, Roberts would purchase a lottery ticket, hoping a big win would fill the gap. He never won, but Roberts didn't get discouraged, Johnson said.

Nor did Roberts try to take the credit. Had he been at Thursday's ceremony he would have been embarrassed by the attention, Johnson said. His motivation was not for recognition or money or prestige, but for helping the young people of the Watts area.

"He could've left and gone to higher clubs," Johnson said. "His desire was to really build this for this community where he'd grown up."

Shemika Pecot was 14 when "Mr. Roy" started raising money for the new center. Now 30, she toured the new building that her mentor constantly talked about.

She took solace in the fact that before he died, Roberts toured the building once. He inspected every corner, she said.

Pecot stood on a second-floor concourse overlooking the newly waxed indoor basketball court that still doesn't have baskets. There at the half-court line is the heart of the building--"Roy W. Roberts II Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club" in shiny black letters.

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