On a former vacant lot on the border of West Los Angeles and Culver City, the Mar Vista Family Center opened its preschool with the hope of engaging parents as partners in the education of their children. Three weeks later, a local gang, who viewed the new school as an intrusion into their territory, burned down the building. The year was 1980. Then and there the founders of the Mar Vista Family Center decided that they could succeed only if community members took a larger role – as volunteers in the classroom, pre-school teachers, and community leaders. Only then could Mar Vista achieve its long-term goal: transforming the lives of families and their neighborhood, which had the highest crime rate of Los Angeles’ west side.
Today, the Mar Vista Family Center stands as a testament to that idea and the community that has carried it out. The center is thriving and filled with people of all ages. Its year-round, rebuilt preschool serves 34 children, ages 3 to 5, and always has a waiting list. Teens from the center’s By Youth For Youth Leadership Program run the after-school and summer camp programs that attract hundreds of neighborhood children. At night, adults come out for ESL classes, leadership training, and parent groups.
No one believes more in the power of shared responsibility than Lucia Diaz, executive director of Mar Vista. When she enrolled her 3-year-old in the preschool, she was a recent immigrant from Mexico who helped support her young family by cleaning houses. Teachers at the preschool encouraged her to pass her GED and earn a certificate in early childhood education so that she could join the staff. After 20 years, Diaz still recognizes the strength of her mentors who “gave me the space to grow and make my own mistakes.”
Now Diaz takes the lead in making sure other parents and community members have that same opportunity. Weekly leadership training for parents who have children enrolled in nearby public schools and workshops for community members give others the skills to speak out and share in decisions. Even gang members who were once an obstacle to the project are now supportive members of the Mar Vista community. When the center decided to expand into a second building, Diaz recruited young people from the community as apprentice construction workers. Many were high-school dropouts who could not earn a degree because the only school they could attend stood in a rival gang’s territory.
The solution? Working with the Los Angeles School District, Mar Vista opened an alternative high school in the building those young people had helped to renovate. The program, designed for 25, now serves 100 students. Gang members were among the young people who worked hard on the construction project. Now, says Diaz, they feel “they own the community, but in a different way.”
Mar Vista Family Center is a 2002 Honoree of Families Count, the national honors program that recognizes organizations that are making a difference in the lives of families struggling to survive in tough neighborhoods.