There are many programs for at risk youth in Santa Monica, but none is quite like the program at the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC).
According to Center documents, the concept for the PYFC grew out of the need to address the problem of “gang violence as a product of deeply rooted social and economic inequalities,” including segregation, institutionalized racism and poverty.
Funded by the City, the center opened its doors at its current 828 Pico Boulevard location in 2001 for the express purpose of delivering services to young people and their families. This year, the center received a $289,000 grant from the City of Santa Monica and $70,000 from Saint John’s Health Center.
Targeting people between the ages of 16 to 24, it is the only program in Santa Monica to serve young adults.
Oscar de La Torre, the center’s founder and Executive Director and a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s (SMMUSD) Board of Education, told the Mirror that it is important for the center to focus on the older group because it’s “an important transitional point in life.”
One of eight children, de La Torre and his sublings grew up in the Pico Neighborhood at 16th Street and Delaware and saw a lot of his friends either get killed or jailed. After graduating from Santa Monica High School, he went on to Santa Monica College and decided to use his education to give back to the community.
From 1998-2000 he worked at Samohi as a student counselor where he learned “you can’t have strong schools and a weak community” and that problems in the community spill over into the schools, such as gang issues, drugs and racial conflict…[and] there was no community based solution to deal with all those issues in Santa Monica.”
De la Torre was inpired by John Rossi, a Santa Monican who did a lot for people living in the Pico Neighborhood and who “touched” his life when he was a junior at Samohi. He “promised Rossi on his death bed that in his memory I would open a youth center.”
A sign saying “John Rossi Youth Center” hangs on the wall at the PYFC and de la Torre looks at it to “remind me why I do this work.”
De la Torre stressed that “If you want a strong community you have to invest in its youth. Unfortunately, we invest in punishment rather than intervention and prevention. The State of California spends $80,000 to lock up a youth in the California Youth Authority (CYA). All we do is create gang members there. The CYA creates more gang members than any other institution. They come out from the CYA more tattooed and more violent than before they went in and then they return to low-income neighborhoods. This culture of punishment is creating permanent second class citizens without the right to vote who can’t get a job.”
At the center, ex-gang members work as “intervention specialists and mediators for peace…taking people who used to be part of the problem and making them part of the solution.”
PYFC receives referrals for services from the County probation department and from SMMUSD high schools, principally Olympic High School and Samohi.
The center provides a number of services to young people and their families. MECHA de UCLA offers tutoring and college preparatory services that include workshops on study skills, time management and how to access financial aid. There are also Hip Hop workshops and “hands-on studio sessions to learn music production, and recording techniques from professionals in the field using state-of the-art equipment.” Center musicians recently recorded an original CD that they will sell to raise funds for the Center.
The Center also provides counseling, case management and support groups through a partnership with St. John’s Child and Family Development Center that help young people and their families “communicate more effectively, manage anger, and improve relationships.”
Center participants also receive help with resume development, job applications, and interview techniques, and the Center works with the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce to help find jobs for marginalized youth.
In the Center’s computer center, students go on the internet and complete school assignments, while others learn computer assembly and repair and installation and operation of computer software.
Among the other programs available at the Center are leadership training through “community workshops, a youth conference, and community improvement projects,” a youth and council and yoga classes.
The PYFC currently has a space problem – with less than 2,000 square feet and no storage in its storefront facility. It would like to relocate to Virginia Avenue Park when the remodeled park opens, in order to “provide alternatives for youth at the park instead of just hanging out,” according to de La Torre.
Julie Rusk, a manager in the City’s Human Services Department, told the Mirror that the PYFC will probably not be able to locate in Virginia Avenue Park as “none of the non-profits will be solely located at the park…the City does not want to give space for the exclusive use of any one organization, but wants all the organizations including the PYFC to play a part.
Cesar de la Torre, Oscar’s nephew, who attended SMC and has started two businesses, said, “without the center I’d have been in jail or dead.”
Another center advocate, Omar Tapia, said he once spent his time “mainly on the streets and in friends’ houses or on buses going around town. Now I have some place to go.” After some time in the computer program, he started his own computer repair business. He said, “On the streets, it’s hard not be around gang members.
After Krizna Ayau’s husband was murdered three months ago, she came to the center for support and employment and other help. “If the center wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have been able to cope.”