More than 500 children are expected to learn karate, soccer and sewing this summer at a Santa Ana community center that has long stood underused in a historic neighborhood.
The nonprofit Delhi Center, built in 2001 on city land, was supposed to serve the Delhi community by providing youth programs. But for years, the center, which cost $5 million to build, has offered programs for the community only sporadically. Last summer the building was often vacant while children played in driveways across the street.
Some local residents remain suspicious because for years they have not known what the purpose of the center is and never went inside.
New programs are "good news, if it's true," said Lalo Morfin, 36, a father of three who lives in the neighborhood. "We've never really understood what that place was for. I think my wife actually thought it was some kind of church. We hope there's something there for us this summer."
New leaders say they want to change the center's aloof image. Other nonprofit groups had been discouraged from using the center, but now Delhi Center officials have invited them to offer summer classes.
"This summer will be a way for us to see how we can work with other organizations and how we can offer programs that the community really wants," said Rigoberto Rodriguez, 37, a native of the Delhi neighborhood who sits on the center's board. "It's a first step toward involving the community and advocating for it."
The Delhi Center was created as a nonprofit organization in 1969, operating out of two Army barracks in the area to help Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers. The center, the largest of its kind in Santa Ana when it was built in 2001, has struggled financially because of its increasing overhead.
It depends on government grants -- which do not pay for building maintenance -- room rental income and private donations.
Rodriguez and others are working to register children for classes offered for the first time at the center.
The offerings include self-esteem classes for elementary school children, karate classes, sewing and outdoor games. The classes will be offered at low cost or will be free of charge.
The new classes come after the center's second executive director quit several months ago and Rodriguez and other board members decided to take day-to-day leadership roles to save money.
The center had operated in Quonset huts before moving into the new building, where liability insurance and maintenance costs grew exponentially.
The center is working on plans to become self-sustaining by instituting fee-based services such as a food cooperative that would give paying members reduced-priced food staples, Rodriguez said.
Despite the center's new ideas and planned programs, Mary Bloom Ramos, president of the city's Empowerment Zone, is not convinced that it can be what city leaders once envisioned.
"It's taken a while, but they are finally getting the drift. They need to be more welcoming to the community. They have new interim leadership that is apparently trying to engage the community," she said. "I want to see sustained activity, and if there is, I'll be pleased. They have a long way to go for me to be impressed."
Others are more optimistic. Eddie Carmona, a community organizer with the Orange County Congregation Community Organization, an umbrella group of churches, had been concerned about the lack of programming at the center.
Now, he says, "I think we can get closer to the original vision than we could before."