Community transforms troubled park

ALL TOGETHER Monthly Cafesito meetings at San Ysidro Park are a place for community members to plan upcoming activities at the park.

Hand-painted murals adorn lighted basketball and handball courts in San Ysidro Park in east Gilroy, a welcoming invitation for local families and children. But this wasn’t always the case. For decades the park had been a hangout for gangs, violence and drugs.

“Now you drive by on the weekend, or any given day, and you’ll see kids playing out there, and families,” Gilroy Police Sgt. Paco Rodriguez said. “You don’t see people working on cars or doing drugs anymore, the way it used to be. There’s definitely a noticeable difference now.”

How did this transformation happen?

It began more than two years ago when Gilroy resident and father of two, Jorge Mendoza, along with Edit Lopez, saw a need in their community and asked how they could help. Mendoza began by reaching out to Bernice Aguilera Toney, program manager of the South County Youth Task Force (SCYTF), who he’d met in 2016 at a community forum.

With Mendoza’s prompting, in February 2017, Aguilera Toney organized a meeting at GPD with more than a dozen east Gilroy residents and the Gilroy Police Department.

“Jorge and the community spoke about what they were envisioning, monthly coffee meetings with different city department heads, starting with the Chief of Police, to better understand city processes and create a platform for greater involvement, trust and communication,” Aguilera Toney said. “I challenged them to think of what the overall goal was, how did it look, what outcomes did they want to see for the city, specifically for east Gilroy?”

She also suggested the community center in San Ysidro Park, which closed in 2015, as the location to hold these proposed meetings. With a location secured, the community came up with a name for their project, San Ysidro, Nueva Vida, a name which represents the community’s hopes and dreams.

“The park used to be called cholos park (gangster park), and when the community got together they decided on San Ysidro, Nueva Vida, which means San Ysidro, New Life,” Mendoza said. “They wanted to have a new stamp on the park, and since it began no one calls it gangster park, or cholos park, everyone calls it San Ysidro, Nueva Vida.”

It was important to Aguilera and the SCYTF to offer the community what they wanted and needed.

“For us it’s important that the community voice what they see as a possible solution to their own issues,” Aguilera Toney said. “Especially when they call for accessibility and safety for their public spaces, community awareness and mobilization training for parents.”

GPD’s Chief Scot Smithee was introduced to Nueva Vida after taking on the role of chief in 2017. He believes the group is “truly dedicated to making our community better.”

“They are focused on the positive and look for ways to build relationships,” Smithee said.

Starting with a planning process in 2012, and a Community Transformation grant from Santa Clara Public Health, the SCYTF was able to reach out to different organizations, including the Latino Family Fund, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Probation Department in conjunction with the Neighborhood Safety Unit to help fund the project.

For the past two years the center has thrived, and so has the community, through its offerings of free classes, workshops, trainings and monthly Cafesito meetings, where all attendees come together and sit in a circle, a symbol that the meeting is for everyone, and no one person is in charge.

“We, as a community, decide what we can do to help,” Aguilera Toney said.

During this same timeframe the GPD realized the importance of establishing relationships with the community, especially the Spanish-speaking community, which led to the creation of the Spanish Speaking Citizens Police Academy in September 2017.

“We really can’t do our job without the community, so we need their help, we need their trust, and the way to do that is to build those relationships with them,” Rodriguez said, adding he and Sgt. Juan Rocha became coordinators of the academy when it first began.

“They have done a really good job facilitating these presentations and have maintained the relationships developed with the community participants,” Smithee said. “I truly felt the impact from that one class completed in Spanish was the single most significant thing the Gilroy Police Department has done to enhance our relationship with our non-English-speaking community.”

Rodriguez agrees with Smithee.

“It really helped build a relationship between the city government, the police department, and the community,” Rodriguez said, noting that about 25 percent of the participants in the academy come from Nueva Vida. “We go to the monthly meetings especially when they call out to us, we make ourselves available for the community.”

As important as it is for all branches of government and local agencies to reach out to the community, the success of that connection hinges solely on the community itself, and its leaders.

“As people who work in government we have good intentions but it takes relationship-building within the community,” Aguilera Toney said. “Having Jorge in the community, he takes that leadership role. Jorge is all about the compassion, and the generosity, and the richness, that we have as human beings, he’s all about what we can do together.”

Other members of Nueva Vida are equally motivated by the project, and relate to the current struggles faced by the community, as they too faced those same struggles.

Sandra Cruz, community coordinator for the City of Gilroy Recreation Department, moved from Mexico when she was 7 years old to a neighborhood directly across the street from San Ysidro Park, and was not allowed in the park without her parents.

For Cruz, the Nueva Vida project is an opportunity to make a change where a change was badly needed.

“This center is really the hopes and dreams of what the community wants and needs, because who better to know what they need, then them,” Cruz said.

Cruz, a Fulbright scholarship recipient and graduate from UC Berkeley, hopes her accomplishments will prove as an inspiration to the youth in her community.

“I want to be able to show youth that they can do it and their families should take advantage of the opportunities, and get mentors and connect with people that really care about them, because I felt that nobody really cared,” Cruz said. “But in this space, everyone matters. We want to show these youth a better way.”

And she isn’t alone in her dedication to the community. Ariana Orozco of the Neighborhood Safety Services Unit was able to help pilot the Zumba and sewing classes that were first offered at the center.

“Then we brought on tutoring and volleyball,” Orozco said, adding her motivation regarding the project is a very personal one. “I see myself in these youth and the families because I faced the same stereotypes and the same struggles at school with counselors and teachers labeling you because you’re not going to go to college because you’re Mexican. That same thing is going on still, that’s my motivation, and why I’m here to help.”

Another city employee, Monica Gonzalez, interim recreation specialist, was born and raised not far from east Gilroy. After she graduated from UC Davis she felt motivated to return to the community and serve.

“Once I was able to step away from Gilroy…I knew that there was an ownership I had to my town as a person of color and I wanted to come back and be able to address the needs that I saw here in my community,” Gonzalez said.

From its meager offerings of four classes when it first began, Nueva Vida’s current schedule includes cooking, pastry, sewing, and guitar classes, youth and adult soccer, volleyball, tutoring, and various workshops, all of which take place every week. To offer this vast selection of classes and workshops, volunteers are a must. Nueva Vida receives the support of nearly 20 volunteer instructors every week, and the quarterly events are staffed with an additional 20 to 30 more.

“Everyone gives of their time, it’s literally a labor of love,” Aguilera Toney said.

The next quarterly event, Party In The Park 2019, takes place on Friday, June 21, 5-9:30pm. Rodriguez plans to attend the event and he’s bringing with him a few members of the Mounted Enforcement Unit.

“That’s always an eye-catcher for the kids,” Rodriguez said.

Credit certainly belongs to all participants of Nueva Vida for the transformation of San Ysidro Park from a gang haven to a safe haven. But that type of transformation first begins with the question, how can one make a difference?  

“He (Mendoza) always starts with a question, and that leads to ideas and just asking, and I’ve seen how witnessing his work just by questioning, it can manifest dreams into reality,” Gonzalez said. “So it’s been instrumental for our community to just ask questions.”

“Now we have community members speaking out and going to their parent and teacher conferences, to their school district, and to the council,” Cruz added.

Mendoza’s future plans include increasing the size of the center to offer more space and more resources to the community. He also plans to encourage the youth to work more closely with the police department, the city and the Explorer Program.

Mendoza said he’s confident other communities committed to making a positive change can achieve the same success.

“Anyone can organize themselves like we did,” he said. “Morgan Hill has reached out to us wanting to replicate this, so has Hollister. So, let’s do it again.”

Kimberly Ewertz
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About Kimberly Ewertz
Kimberly Ewertz is a freelance writer for South Valley magazine and Gilroy Dispatch.