It’s a safe new world for Valley youth
Edward Murillo knows what it’s like to need a refuge.
As a gay teenager growing up in South Lake Tahoe, he says, he was kicked out of the house a dozen times. “The first time, I slept out in the woods,” he recalls.
Now 20, and living with an aunt and uncle in Sun Valley, he’s a student at Pierce College and a leader of its Gay-Straight Alliance club.
And this week, he was definitely out of the woods, sitting in a bright and freshly painted new drop-in center for at-risk, foster, homeless and LGBT young people aged 14 to 21. The center, which formally opens Friday, is the first of its kind in the San Fernando Valley.
“I feel like if there was a center like this in Lake Tahoe, it would have been amazing. It would have made me feel a lot better,” Murillo says.
Charles Robbins, vice president of communications and development for The Village Family Services, which has created the center on the site of a former orthopedic surgeon’s office in North Hollywood, says it will serve a growing population with urgent and specific needs.
“We are going to be a heavily-used site,” he predicts, noting a “migration” of homeless youth to the Valley as crackdowns intensify in Hollywood. “Lots of these kids are coming into North Hollywood.”
He says that many of the young people end up “couch-surfing with friends,” while others frequent local libraries, public transit stations and parks.
Some offerings at the new center are geared to addressing the needs of homeless kids—showers, a washer-dryer, a few basic clothing supplies. Others, like an outdoor patio, foosball table, free Wi-Fi and “cyber lounge” with computers, along with a steady supply of healthy breakfasts and snacks, seem likely to be hits with all the young patrons, regardless of their housing status.
Beyond the amenities, planned activities include art, fitness, vocational and life-skills classes, counseling, peer and support groups and referrals to an array of services including housing and substance abuse recovery.
The center is being started with funding from 3rd District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, with much of the annual operating expenses expected to come from private donors. It is on the first floor of the Valley Community Clinic, 6801 Coldwater Canyon Avenue in North Hollywood. That location, right downstairs from the facility’s Teen Clinic, offers a powerful combination of vital services under one roof.
“The Teen Clinic’s services are free, which is amazing,” says Karina Perez, 18, the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Pierce College and a friend of Murillo, who is the group’s public affairs officer. Onsite mental health counseling will also be available at the new drop-in center. “If you’re having anxiety or feeling depressed, they can help,” she points out.
Perez lives in North Hollywood, but others are expected to come from come across the sprawling Valley to find fellowship and support at the drop-in center.
“We come all the way down from Lancaster to support something like this,” says Mario Vasquez, 18. “Even youth from our area can come down and feel safe and respected in an environment where everyone is working together.”
Vasquez, Perez and Anthony Barros, 17, are all youth advocates with Project Q, which provides supportive services for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) young people at The Village Family Services. When the organization started developing plans for the drop-in center, the students played a role in shaping its identity, including helping to paint some of the colorful canvases that now adorn the walls.
“When we first got news that we got funding for the drop-in center, I was overwhelmingly excited,” Barros says. “Finally, a safe space where LGBTQ and straight allied people can come together in the San Fernando Valley. I’m really looking at this as a place where we can all feel comfortable and supported, a place where we can continue our leadership and develop ourselves as people and citizens.”
Bringing down the (White) House
Every performer loves a standing ovation. And for a troupe of young mariachis from the northeast San Fernando Valley, the only thing better than bringing a White House audience to its feet was having Michelle Obama in the front row as Applauder-in-Chief.
Put your hands together for the city of San Fernando’s Mariachi Master Apprentice Program, fresh from an engagement at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where the group received a prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award worth $10,000, and enough incredible moments to last a lifetime—from first trip in an airplane to first visit to the Lincoln Memorial to first photo-op with the First Lady.
“It was surreal,” said 16-year-old Anthony Fino, who plays trumpet in the organization’s Mariachi Tesoro performance ensemble, which wowed ‘em in Washington, D.C. over the Thanksgiving break.
“As an educator, you can’t simply prepare for that kind of emotional hurricane, the feeling of standing in the White House,” said Sergio Alonso, one of the group’s musical instructors. “Gosh, how can you even envision playing in an atmosphere like that?” (A recent gig at Disneyland was also pretty cool. Next stop: the Board of Supervisors, where they’re being honored on January 15.)
The national award recognizes after-school “arts and humanities programs that celebrate the creativity of America’s young people, particularly those from underserved communities.”
The San Fernando group, started on a shoestring twelve years ago, certainly fits the bill. It brings together local kids with professional musicians, including those who’ve played with the legendary Nati Cano, a co-founder of the organization with Virginia Diediker, the city of San Fernando’s cultural arts supervisor.
The rigorous program doesn’t just introduce students to the cultural and musical richness of the mariachi tradition; it also gives them a leg up on future academic and professional success.
“We are helping these young musicians learn life skills, through the discipline that music provides,” Diediker said.
Its participants have a stellar graduation record, in an area where only 58% of students finish high school. Some, like 17-year-old Ernesto Lazaro, hope to use their mariachi talents as a springboard to studying music at a famed conservatory like Juilliard. Others head in another kind of professional direction, like Stefanie Espinoza, a UCLA freshman who aims to become a surgeon.
Espinoza, 19, who plays violin and sings with the ensemble, is still feeling a motivational buzz from the group’s White House debut.
When she stepped forward to solo on “¡Viva Mexico, Viva America!” as part of the medley the group performed in the East Room on November 19, Espinoza smiled and looked directly at the First Lady.
“She looked at me and I looked at her. She looked so great,” said Espinoza, who’s majoring in physiological science. Equally thrilling: being praised by the First Lady for choosing to study science.
In honoring this year’s 12 award-winning groups for pushing students toward excellence, often against long odds, Obama also threw down a challenge to the young artists:
“Your job now is to pass it on—to find someone in your life that you’re going to mentor, that you’re going to pull up. And whether it’s in the arts or whether it’s academically, your job is to find the next you.”
That resonated with Fabian Narez, 17, who pays it forward by coaching younger students, members of the organization’s “Tesoritos” program, on the violin.
For Narez and many of the other musicians, mariachi is a way to connect with their heritage—and their parents’ and grandparents’ music, even if many of their peers are more into rap or hip-hop.
“The school’s 98% Hispanic. It’s part of our roots,” Narez said. And even if he ends up with a business degree and achieves his dream of becoming a CEO, he said, he intends to keep the mariachi tradition alive.
“I would love to keep performing till the day I die,” he said. “It’s one of my many dreams.”
There’s also a certain “big musician on campus” status that erupts when you return to your high school with a White House gig under your belt.
“Some of them were pretty jealous, to tell you the truth,” said San Fernando High School student Alejandro Ascencio, 15, who performs in the group along with his two brothers. “Everybody knows about it and would like to be in it.”
Watch their performance in this White House video.
From the ashes, monumental memories
Last week, a memorial was relocated in the San Fernando Valley, a bit of granite that was moved for improvements at El Cariso Community Regional Park. The marker is modest, standing in sharp contrast to the tragedy it commemorates: Forty-six years ago this month, 31 young men were dispatched to a wildfire near Sylmar, and only 19 of them survived.
Rich Leak was 19 that summer, the gung-ho son of a Camp Pendleton fire captain. “All my life,” he recalls “I had wanted to be a fireman.” After attending a summer firefighting program at the U.S. Marine base, he had joined an elite ground crew of “hotshots” based near Lake Elsinore, so called because they were dispatched to the hottest parts of forest blazes. By 1966, his second year with the El Cariso Hotshots, he was a crew foreman, traveling the West to cut fire lines and clear brush around raging wildfires and “loving the excitement and the adrenalin rush.”
The Nov. 1, 1966, call came on a hot day at the end of a long fire season: A faulty power line had sparked a brushfire near Pacoima Dam. Whipped by Santa Ana winds, the blaze had charred some 2,000 acres around Loop Canyon. But it appeared to be dying by the time Leak and his fellow hotshots got what they regarded as an easy assignment—to scrape a fire line along a ravine near the smoldering fire.
“There wasn’t a lot of brush, and the fire was starting to lay down, so the line we were cutting didn’t have to be that big,” Leak remembers. The young men worked without gloves, their hands thick and calloused, their shirtsleeves rolled up. Their orange fire shirts had been washed so many times that they had long since lost their fire retardant coating. No one carried a radio or stood lookout. No one bothered to haul in a portable fire shelter.
And no one understood the dangers of the terrain, Leak says. Now firefighters know that a steep crease in a slope can act as a draft for combustible gasses. But on that day, no one knew that the 31 guys in orange hardhats were entering a death trap. They were nearly done with their work when, at 3:35 p.m., the wind abruptly shifted. A spot fire ignited on the hillside below them. As Leak looked up, the air around him suddenly went wavy.
Down the line an order came: Get out—now! But within seconds, a mighty rush of super-hot gas swept up the 2,200-foot ravine and exploded.
“It was like when you pour lighter fluid on a charcoal barbeque and put a match to it,” Leak remembers. “There was this big wooooof! And then all I could see was just a wall of orange flame. I had to look straight up to see blue sky.”
Leak held his breath so his lungs wouldn’t sear in the 2,500-degree heat, falling to his knees as the shock wave hit him. “Guys were yelling and screaming and praying and calling for their mothers,” he remembers. “I was talking to my Savior, that’s for sure.”
The Loop Fire would change safety protocols for fighting fires in narrow canyons, encouraging lookouts and radios and the development of much-improved fire gear, but not before it claimed the lives of 12 hotshots, most in their late teens and early 20s. Ten more were critically burned and scarred for life by the disaster. The fireball lasted no longer than 60 seconds, but in that time Leak suffered full-circumference burns from his elbows to his wrists, and lost four of his fingers.
After the smoke cleared, he recalls, “I was in shock, running around from one guy to the next, trying to put out the fire with my bare hands. At one point, I looked down at my arms and saw skin hanging down. All I thought was, ‘Wow, I guess I got burned pretty good.’”
It took three years and more than 30 surgeries for doctors to repair Leak’s wounds, using skin grafts from his stomach to repair his damaged hands. He has had to relearn how to type and eat with utensils. He struggles to pick up coins and he has to use both hands to screw a hose onto a faucet. He has no fingerprints.
“For a long time, I was very self-conscious,” he remembers. He went back to school at Palomar College near his hometown of Vista, earning an associate degree in business, thinking he might become a CPA. Then he heard the Vista Fire Department was hiring dispatchers. “It’s hard to describe unless you’re a firefighter,” he says. “It never goes away for me.”
He spent 30 years with the Vista Fire Department, working his way up to fire investigator before retiring to Hesperia 12 years ago. He married a friend’s neighbor and helped raise her two children. “To her, it was what was in my heart that mattered,” he says. “She told me she didn’t even notice I was burned at first.”
Then in 1996, the U.S. Forest Service sent him a notification: A memorial commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Loop Fire was going to be installed in El Cariso Park. Not all the survivors could make it, but some did. Sadly, they recalled the fallen.
“I still remember ‘em,” Leak says. “Raymond Chee, my crew boss, a Navajo I think from New Mexico—very quiet guy, used a brush hook. He was the best hook I’ve ever seen. The White brothers, Michael and Stephen, 22 and 18. They were from San Diego. Their dad was a captain in the Navy. It was devastating for their family.
“John Figlo, he was 18, kind of a quiet guy. Strong. James Moreland. He was in his twenties. Frederick Danner, a tall guy and a really good worker. He died in the hospital. Kenneth Barnhill, nice guy. I knew his brother. Carl Shilcutt, he was 26, one of the older guys on the crew.” He continues down the list: Daniel Moore, Joel Hill, William Waller. John Verdugo, a 19-year-old kid whose body was the first one he saw when he opened his eyes.
Leak kept in touch with the other survivors. He and another ex-hotshot, Ed Cosgrove, began giving talks together to fire academy classes. There were reunions—that’s how he found out that the 1996 marker was in serious need of repair. A drunk driver had hit it and cracked the granite. Skateboarders had worn down the lettering; taggers had marred it with graffiti.
So Leak spearheaded a move for a new one, only to learn that it was going to be moved anyway to make way for park improvements. Last week, a new marker was re-dedicated near a park office building. “It’s near a walkway,” he says. “Granite, just like the original.”
“There are times when I think, ‘What if I’d perished?’” says Leak, now 65. “But you can’t let things haunt you. You have to get over your injuries and go for it. I’m thankful to be here, living my life.”
Spotlight’s on new El Cariso center
El Cariso Park’s new community center’s got game—15,000 square feet of it, including a state-of-the-art gymnasium, gleaming stainless steel kitchen, eco-friendly landscaping, and a main lobby adorned with three shimmering olive leaf sculptures suspended from above.
The $11.5 million project also includes a computer-equipped classroom and a multipurpose room. The gymnasium has two electronic scoreboards and can be divided so more than one game can take place at a time.
The new center significantly expands the recreational profile of the county regional park, which attracts 410,026 users each year and offers programs for young people, seniors and others that draw 8,326 annually.
The leaves in the sculpture are bronze, and the new building’s environmental certification is LEED Silver, all the way. The designation honors energy-efficient design and building methods.
Anticipation for the center’s opening is building in the neighborhood.
Juan Cisneros, who lives a few blocks from the park, is looking forward to enrolling his sons, Christian and Andrew, in basketball programs there, and perhaps volunteering as a coach himself.
“I already picked up some registration forms,” he said. “I was there yesterday. From the outside, it looks huge. Even my wife is excited to see the inside of the gym.”
Alina Mendizabal, a local activist and park volunteer, said the new facility represents a big step forward for the community.
“It’s brought Sylmar up another notch,” she said. “I’m really excited because it’s such a beautiful building. There are so many things we can do in there…The possibilities are endless.”
Dedication of the gymnasium and community center—a joint project of the 3rd Supervisorial District and the county departments of Parks and Recreation and Public Works—will take place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27. The park is located at 13100 Hubbard St., Sylmar, 91342.
If you can’t make the opening, or just can’t wait for a sneak peek, check out the gallery of images below.
Herd on the street in Chatsworth
Meet Dave Diestel, lawman. He wears a sheriff’s star. And on Wednesday morning, the Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy responded to a call straight out of the wild, wild West.
Fifteen head of cattle—bulls, cows and calves—were treating themselves to an all-you-can-graze buffet outside a sprawling apartment complex in Chatsworth.
“They were there for the grass,” said Diestel, a 10-year sheriff’s veteran assigned to the Malibu/Lost Hills station. “They went from green belt to green belt. The canyon is just so dry.”
The animals had made their first appearance the night before. Deputies, aided by county animal control workers and an apartment-dweller with a couple of herding dogs, thought they had successfully shooed the herd back up Browns Canyon.
No such luck.
So Deputy Diestel headed back to the scene Wednesday. As the cattle chowed down on the lush green lawns of the Summerset Village apartment complex, he set off on foot to see if he could determine where they’d come from.
“I couldn’t find anything back there, just mountains,” he said.
Suddenly, though, help appeared in the form of a woman who said she was the neighbor of the rancher whose cattle had wandered off.
The woman, armed with what Diestel described as an “Indiana Jones”-style bull whip, was able to persuade the cattle to git along.
“She drove them the rest of the way,” he said. “It was funny as heck.”
The woman with the whip and the rancher who owns the herd did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Ranna Issa, who manages the apartment complex, said residents seemed more amused than frightened by the bovine brigade.
“It was comical, to say the least,” Issa said. “They didn’t come near any residents…Really, it was just the grass they were after.”
As for Deputy Diestel, he was still marveling at the turn his morning shift had taken.
“It was all before breakfast,” he said. “I’ve never had to herd cattle before. That was definitely a first for me.”
Fighting poverty with a winning team
The Pacoima-based anti-poverty organization MEND says that volunteers are the “lifeblood” of their agency—and they’d love a transfusion of your time and energy.
MEND, which stands for Meet Each Need with Dignity, recently was named California’s Nonprofit of the Year by the Office of the Governor and CaliforniaVolunteers. The award honors a group that has shown “an extraordinary ability to leverage volunteers in service to their organization.”
In the case of MEND, more than 3,000 volunteers help with everything from a clothing center and emergency food bank to dental, vision and medical clinics. The organization also offers a range of training and educational programs, including after-school tutoring. Special initiatives include a “Seed to Supper” program in which young people attend Saturday sessions to learn about gardening and nutrition, culminating in a “harvest celebration supper.”
If you’d like to sign up to help MEND in any capacity, more information is here. They also need contributions of clothes, food, toiletries, educational supplies and other goods. And, of course, financial help is always welcome.
Here’s government for the people
People don’t always have time to research everything their government does. For example, only half of the Los Angeles County families that qualify for CalFresh food stamps are actually enrolled in the program. This Saturday in the northeast San Fernando Valley, Government Day will give residents a chance to learn what’s out there—and how to put it to work for themselves and their families.
Representatives from 40 agencies will be on hand, including the Los Angeles County Department of Human Resources, which will have applications for county government jobs; the City of L.A.’s Department of Building and Safety, with information on how to report housing issues; and Access Services, which provides transportation for the disabled. Also participating will be the CalFresh Mobile Unit, offering applications for food assistance; the City of L.A.’s Bureau of Street Services, with tips on how to report potholes and other road or sidewalk problems; and the Northeast San Fernando Worksource Center, which will provide applications for its job training programs.
Government Day has been held annually for the past 31 years. This year’s event takes place on Saturday, July 21, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. inside the Panorama Mall at 8401 Van Nuys Boulevard.
Keeping cool as summer heats up
The summer’s first major heat wave is upon us, and it’s packing a powerful punch. With temperatures expected to remain high through the end of the work week, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has issued a heat advisory for the San Fernando Valley through Friday, July 13.
High temperatures can be dangerous, especially for children and the elderly. The L.A. County Department of Community and Senior Services maintains countywide cooling centers, including three in the San Fernando Valley, at ONEgeneration Senior Enrichment Center, San Fernando Recreation Park and San Fernando Valley Service Center. It is recommended that you call ahead to ensure seating is available. The city of L.A. also manages several cooling centers in the area.
County pools offer more than a dip
The water’s fine and so are the learning and exercise opportunities at Los Angeles County swimming pools, which recently opened for the summer season.
“We do a lot of different things at our pools,” said Kaye Michelson of the county Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages the pools. “We have recreational swimming at set times. We also have aqua aerobics for adults, dive clubs, water polo—and most of those programs are free.”
People of all ages can take introductory swimming lessons from county lifeguards for just $20 for ten classes over a two-week session. For adults, the pools can serve as a reasonably-priced alternative to a gym membership—morning and evening adult lap swimming is $7 per week or $25 per month, and aqua aerobics are $15 for two weeks of classes.
The pool at El Cariso Park in Sylmar has a full roster of additional water activities. Kids ages 7 to 17 can learn diving, competitive swimming, synchronized swimming or water polo, and swimmers ages 9 and up can join in on triathlon training—all for free. See the El Cariso Pool schedule for details.
Pool safety is always a major focus, so lifeguards will be keeping an eye on swimmers and sharing their expertise. The Department of Parks and Recreation has also compiled a list of guidelines to follow.
“We want kids and parents to learn good safety tips that they can use anywhere, at any body of water,” said Michelson.
All 25 county pools are open daily for recreational swimming from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. until Labor Day. Proper swimwear is required. Entrance is free, and guests ages 6 and under must be accompanied by an adult.