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Teaching a Lesson in Perseverance

Faced with insurance problems, a nationally recognized La Habra after-school tutoring program finds itself a new home nearby.

October 12, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

The good news for Rose Espinoza's husband is that he can finally use his garage. Perhaps not as good for dozens of students in La Habra is that Rosie's Garage, a nationally recognized tutoring program, has moved from the humble home location where it began 12 years ago.

After helping hundreds of children, the after-school homework-help program was moved out of her Corona Park neighborhood last week because of mounting concerns over the possibility of lawsuits and insurance liability. The program now operates about half a mile away, across the railroad tracks, in the rent-free offices of a city-owned building.

"The only one who is really happy is my husband," Espinoza said. "Parents now have to take responsibility. They can't just let the kids walk down the street to us."

Since the beginning of the program, Espinoza's 13-year-old dog, Capi, has been present while the children did their homework. He even ran in the organization's 5K race fundraiser. But in March, Capi (short for Capitan) bit a 6-year-old neighbor. Espinoza's insurance company is negotiating with the family and warned her that keeping the program in her garage could create future liability concerns.

That was something Espinoza had never contemplated in her La Habra neighborhood where a small-town mentality still thrives.

She began the program in 1991 as a response to rising local gang activity.

"I told my husband that we would help our neighborhood, ourselves and our community," said Espinoza, 51, the mother of an adult son.

The program spawned three other locations -- in La Habra, Brea and Santa Ana -- and brought her dozens of awards. A pair of tutors works at each site for $1.75 an hour. The program, which is free to the children, is funded through donations and money raised through the organization's annual race.

Espinoza also has a day job as a medical instruments designer, and won a seat on the City Council in 2000 after several failed attempts.

Attendance in the new location is about half of what it was at the family's garage. On a recent weekday, about 15 children grappled with arithmetic and practiced reading. Espinoza expects attendance to pick up once word gets out about the relocation.

Espinoza sits at a table with eight children 8 and younger, trying to help each. They sit with crayons, scissors and pencils, most donated by the Emmanuel Lutheran Church.

"If you add five to 40, what do you get?" she asks Chris Ledesma, a 7-year-old second-grader.

At her Fifth Avenue home, a sign in Spanish reads, "Rosie's Garage has moved." Espinoza said it is unlikely that the program will return to the original site because of the bite, which led to three stitches in the girl's cheek.

Students' parents say they have never had a problem with the dog and that they were grateful to the bilingual Espinoza. Many are working-class immigrants with limited English who are hard-pressed to help their children with English-language homework.

Because getting children to Rosie's Garage has become a little more difficult, Espinoza said she has encouraged parents to create carpools and take turns walking the children to the new location.

"Now it's more work for us to get the kids here," said Maria Tule, mother of two girls in the program. "But it's worth it. They do their homework, they learn and I could not help them because I do not speak English."

Art Montoya, the program's assistant director, said the new location presents problems because the children must work in two rooms, which makes it difficult to supervise each. Espinoza makes only periodic appearances at the site.

"I liked the garage better," said 7-year-old Rosa Mendez. "We were all together and we could walk alone from our houses. Now we need to find a ride here."

But back on Fifth Avenue, Alex Espinoza, a machine operator, was sitting in his truck, looking at the garage still filled with school supplies.

"He's probably fantasizing already about what he can do in that garage. For years, it was mine," said Rose Espinoza. "He says he's sorry but inside he probably is saying, 'Yes. Yes. Yes.' "

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