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Group makes after-hours commitment

In a rough-and-tumble Santa Ana community, KidWorks provides role models and guidance.

June 11, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

On a recent weeknight when most working families scrambled just to prepare dinner for themselves, David Benavides and his wife served hot dogs, watermelon and ice cream to 17 neighborhood children in their backyard.

The sons and daughters of Latino immigrants were part of a Bible study class run by KidWorks, a 14-year-old nonprofit organization in Santa Ana, and led by Benavides, a city councilman.

Although the group has a new community center, many of its activities are held in the homes of board members and workers who have elected to live in the rough-and-tumble Bella Vista community to provide role models and personal guidance for neighborhood youth.

"We really want to see restoration in this community," said Emily Benavides, David's wife, who helps neighborhood children with homework at her dining room table. "These kids don't get a lot of support scholastically or in life."

Community activist Roman Reyna said with KidWorks personnel in the neighborhood -- about two miles from downtown Santa Ana -- drugs and crime haven't been erased. But KidWorks representatives have created hope among immigrant families, encouraged involvement in neighborhood associations and created the inspiration to build the new facility, which required $3 million in private donations, he said.

"Seven or eight years ago, there was no unity," Reyna said. "People at KidWorks who live in the community built a trust factor in the community to get people engaged."

"Those individuals who live here have a better understanding of the issues that families are going through," he added. "If someone works here and doesn't live here, they may not see the graffiti, the narcotics and what happens after hours. You can't see that from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m."

Omar Cova, 29, lives down the block from the Benavideses. When he's not working as the youth director at KidWorks, he's counseling teens in the neighborhood, where he lives in a one-bedroom apartment that costs $950 a month.

He also takes graduate classes at Fuller Theological Seminary.

A native of Mexico City who grew up in Los Angeles, he said he didn't plan to live here after graduating from Azusa Pacific University in 2003. But, he said, "I knew I wanted to impact people's lives."

Living in Bella Vista "helps me keep tabs" on the kids and "really understand the conditions in which they live."

"I see how much drug activity there is," he said. "The drugs are in their face with little room to breathe. I know their situation firsthand."

Just recently, he recognized a neighborhood teen hanging out late on a weeknight with a "party crew," a pseudo gang that "parties, drinks and does drugs."

"I told him, 'I'm giving you two weeks to get out,' " Cova said.

And two weeks later, the high school sophomore reported that he had left that circle of friends.

Gabriela Gonzalez, 27, grew up in Bella Vista and decided to return to the neighborhood while a student at Biola University in La Mirada.

"It's a statement to the children, to see someone who grew up here and finds value in the community. It's an action that words can't explain. The tendency is to be a success and leave," said Gonzalez, who has invited KidWorks' teens to her upcoming wedding.

"But for me, the greatest reward was to return."

Gonzalez, a KidWorks board member and former employee who attended the Benavides' barbecue, said moving into a neighborhood to work with the children "is the loudest way to say you care."

Celebrating the end of the semester-long Bible study class, the children, aged 4 to 12, filed into the Benavides backyard and drew with chalk on their concrete. As they ate off paper plates at three picnic tables, their candor about the neighborhood belied their youth.

"It's bad because there are shootings, like the one last night," said an 11-year-old.

"It would be a nice place if you took out the gangsters and the drugs," said Bryan Garcia, 10, who has been in KidWorks programs for two years.

When some of the girls started to shiver, Emily Benavides passed out five of her daughter's sweaters.

When they finished eating, they played a game called Four Corners, a distant cousin of tag.

Then she escorted them back to the apartment complex where they live. She returned home to help her two young children, age 4 and 1, get ready for bed.

She is an elementary school teacher. Her husband, the councilman, chair of KidWorks and a real estate agent, was the first in his family to graduate from college.

"People assumed we would move when our kids were born," said David Benavides, who grew up in East Los Angeles and came to Santa Ana 11 years ago on a KidWorks internship while studying at Biola.

"We won't. It's not the most desirable place to raise a family, but I hope our kids pick up the value of being a part of change."

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