Tapping into America’s Future

Mark Bizzell


As I drive toward downtown Los Angeles, signs in Korean stand tall alongside swaying palm trees.  I am searching for Pico-Union, a working-class Latino neighborhood that borders Koreatown.  Located in the shadow of glass skyscrapers and back-dropped by the San Gabriel Mountains, the area is largely made up of hardworking families.  But it is also rife with gangs and crime, with a poverty level of 45 percent.


Less than a mile from the glitz and glamour of the Staples Center, home of the L.A. Lakers, I spy a nondescript, aging brick-red building.  I slow down and realize I am at my destination when I hear the sounds of children’s laughter coming from inside. 


The Red Shield Community Center, operated by the Salvation Army, has been a refuge for people such as Xochitl Estrada, Luiz Ramirez and Kelsy Valencia.  Just out of high school, they have been coming here since they were kids.  “It’s a safe place,” says Luiz. “I spend a lot of time here to avoid trouble on the street and to play soccer.”  He also adds that during the school year he was a frequent visitor to the computer lab, a state-of-the-art facility bathed in the purple and gold colors of the Lakers, which funded the facility. 


These young adults volunteer managing the hundreds of kids from preschool through high school who attend computer labs, ballet and drama classes, and participate in sports.  “The kids are better behaved here than at school because they know Red Shield won’t tolerate bad behavior,” says Kelsy.  “They police each other, reprimanding the new ones who break the rules as everyone wants to maintain the safe environment that exists.”


Pico-Union is only a little less than two square miles in area, but it is home to some 44,000 residents.  According to the Los Angeles Times’ crime statistics, 10 gangs are active in the vicinity, including the 18th Street gang and the MS-13.  Since 2007 10 gang-related deaths have taken place on its streets, most by gunshot.


I am interviewing Red Shield members, staff and donors as part of a volunteer project through the Taproot Foundation.  Taproot is a national organization that provides business talent to nonprofits.  Strategic planning, website development and branding are but a few of the services Taproot offers.  Business professionals are carefully screened and then matched with nonprofits needing their particular skill sets, usually in groups of five for a period of six months. 

I ask Ann Burroughs, the executive director of Taproot’s Los Angeles office, if there is any other foundation promoting pro-bono work.   “Not in the way we do,” she said.  “Los Angeles is a tough area for volunteers due to traffic and the far-flung areas of the city.  Nonetheless, we have been successful helping inner-city theater programs, healthcare clinics, and homeless shelters obtain professional services they otherwise could not afford.”  With almost 3 million Los Angeles area residents without health insurance and 48,000 people on the street nightly, the city desperately needs the safety net that these nonprofits provide.


Red Shield coordinator Patty Gastelum has been connecting my Taproot team with neighborhood kids and adults to interview, along with donors such as the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation.  She is on a first-name basis with all of the families that attend Red Shield, since she would cross the street from nearby 10th Street Elementary School to take advantage of the center as a child.


“Red Shield saved my life,” Patty explains while taking a break from the many kids that gather around her outside the gym, who obviously love this woman who grew up in the neighborhood.  “I was getting involved with the wrong crowd, and this place offered me a different environment from the streets.  In fact, I met the boy here who would years later become my husband.”  She laughs, “We wouldn’t speak to each other at school, but once in the safety of these walls we could let our guard down.”


Now a mother of three, Patty brings her kids to the same refuge she attended as a child.   The complex contains a huge swimming pool, gym, and soccer field - the latter provided by a grant from the United States Soccer Federation and Nike.  In case anyone thinks these types of facilities are common in inner-city America, Red Shield is an anomaly.  And it is a constant struggle for the center to maintain funding, especially in today’s economic climate.


“We live hand-to-mouth every year, working hard to secure the funding to continue,” says Irene Lewis, the center’s director.  Bursting with energy, she is a daughter of farmworkers and grew up in Salinas, California.  “We don’t have an endowment or receive government money because of the staff time required to do the paperwork.”  Irene has been making sure Red Shield’s doors stay open for 20 years now, although it has been in operation since the 1950s.  “When I learned about Taproot, I applied for a service grant in the area of strategic planning,” she says.  “Donations are harder than ever to come by, making strategic marketing a must.”


A few weeks later on a warm summer’s evening I drive by Red Shield to find neighbors lined by the fence around the soccer field, watching a game the same way many families watch games throughout the nation.  The only difference is that no one would be outdoors normally in this neighborhood in the evening.  But Red Shield is a safe haven.  “We don’t get tagged with graffiti,” explains Irene.  “The gang members know who we are and what we do, and they respect that.”


Aaron Hurst of New York started Taproot in 2001 with a vision to build a “Pro-Bono Nation.”  He said that he knows Americans want to help, to use their professional skills to improve the plight of the poor.  “We have just launched a program called Powered by Pro Bono, which offers nonprofits the tools and training to attract professional volunteers on their own.”  It is to Taproot’s credit that they teach nonprofits to be independent of their organization.  Taproot receives funding from corporations and foundations that see good in what they do.  Taproot also offers programs where they help corporations develop their own pro bono programs.


Patty tells me some Red Shield members have gone on to become police officers, professionals and entrepreneurs.  Many of the kids I spoke with plan to attend college and are optimistic about the future.  Both recent immigrants, as well as native Latinos, have a strong work ethic and own their own small businesses in greater numbers than the general population.   Organizations such as Taproot and Red Shield are essential to ensure that their American Dream becomes a reality, and that the precarious safety net woven by government, nonprofits and corporate giving grows stronger.

  Author Bio:

Mark Bizzell is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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