Santa Clarita’s Newhall Community Center Empowers Neighborhood Partnerships
The City of Santa Clarita won an Award for Excellence for this project in the Effective Advocacy, Intergovernmental Relation and Regional Cooperation category of the 2007 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.
In the early 1990s, the City of Santa Clarita’s East Newhall neighborhood faced numerous daunting challenges. The neighborhood is home to many low-income Hispanic immigrant families and guest workers, and many of its youth were at risk for drug abuse, gang membership and other destructive activities. A vocal group of residents approached the Santa Clarita City Council in 1994, pleading for a place where youth could participate in recreational and educational pro grams that would nurture their growth and development and provide a positive alternative to gangs and drugs.
A Temporary Solution
The council agreed that such a facility would benefit residents and leased a warehouse that was converted into a community center for East Newhall residents. The center featured a boxing program for high-risk teens, a teen group and a small after-school program. The city also set up a satellite office at the center for a bilingual Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy to give community members access to local law enforcement in a non-threatening, informal setting.
A few years after the center opened, it became clear that residents needed additional services on-site, including English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, citizenship workshops and health and exercise classes for adults. But space was limited, and the rented facility was begin ning to deteriorate.
Community Input Shapes New Facility
In spring 2002, residents approached the city council about the community center’s poor condition and overcrowding. The council agreed that the community needed a new facility. In the summer of 2002, the city held several town hall meetings inviting the public to discuss possible sites. City staff also teamed up with the Latino Community Action Network (LCAN) to form a New Community Center Committee, made up of concerned community members, to garner input throughout the development and design process. The community’s ideas shaped the architect’s design and helped prioritize programming for the new center.
In August 2004, construction of the new community center began just two blocks from the original center’s location. Several residents stood guard on the site at night to prevent vandalism, which would interfere with and slow down construction. The center was built in one of the highest crime areas in the Santa Clarita Valley, but not a single incident of vandalism or graffiti occurred during construction.
Activities continued at the original site during construction and, in 2005, the center won the Hispanic Business Committee’s Amistad Award for best organization in Santa Clarita serving the Latino community.
The Newhall Community Center opened to the public on Jan. 21, 2006. The attractive, 17,000-square-foot facility features a multipurpose gymnasium, professional boxing gym, classroom, teen room, toy room, sheriff’s substation, locker rooms, dance studio and an outdoor basketball court, stage, playground and parking area.
Providing Opportunities and Changing Lives
Within the first week of the grand opening, more than 600 residents signed up for membership. The center grew into a vital East Newhall hub, not just a youth center. The Newhall Community Center now offers the services the community had requested, including English classes, numerous citizenship and immigration workshops, health and exercise classes, and on-site, no-cost family therapy with a licensed counselor. Whether they are taking an English class, learning about immigration rights, getting a diabetes test or taking an aerobics class, community members now find resources and empowerment right in their own backyard.
The Newhall Community Center has helped many young people achieve success. Juan Ruiz Jr., now an accomplished professional boxer, learned his skills in the center’s boxing program. One young woman, upon entering the center at age 16, was struggling with school, abusing amphetamines and hanging out with gang members. After participating at the center regularly in programs such as the Girls’ Issues Group and the Youth Employment Services program, she is now 19, off drugs and employed at the center. She is college-bound with aspirations of becoming a probation officer.
Community members who formerly feared law enforcement are now comfortable interacting with the on-site, bilingual deputy who is affectionately known as the “mayor of Newhall.”
Residents view the Newhall Commu nity Center as their center, an invaluable resource and a source of support. New Community Center Committee member and neighbor Rosa Hernandez says, “Not only did the city build a great community center, it also built a great relationship with the residents.”
Success on Many Levels
City officials, law enforcement officers and residents agree that the community center has effectively reduced crime, graffiti, violence and gang involvement in Newhall. The city’s investment of financial resources in the center has also spurred economic improvements in the adjacent downtown area, where individual property owners are sprucing up their properties structurally and with ongoing maintenance.
As of January 2008, membership increased more than 65 percent over the previous year, with more than 5,267 residents signing up for membership. The Newhall Community Center, and the successful partnership it represents, will continue to have a dramatic, positive effect on the community for many years to come.
Contact: Rick Gould, director of parks, recreation and community services, City of Santa Clarita; phone: (661) 255-4978; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.