Kids at Work
Salinas after-school program in danger of fizzling for lack of help.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
After they get out of school, the boys and girls of Gabilan Plaza Apartments head straight for the one place that is theirs. It is an odd-looking space: a narrow two-story wooden clubhouse, resembling a silo, with tinted windows and a tiled roof. But it’s a vital place.
Three times a week, around 30 children complete a pilgrimage there, armed with backpacks, pencils and a desire to learn. They come to do their homework.
The clubhouse is open to these children as part of an after-school program sponsored by the nonprofit agency Barrios Unidos. It’s set up in an ideal location for such a program: right in the heart of a sprawling low-income apartment complex in East Salinas, which houses more than 200 people under age 18.
People like Samuel Salas, 8.
I meet Samuel when he’s sitting down hunched over a desk writing out multiplication problems. The desk where he sits is squeezed into the corner of the first floor of the clubhouse, where space is a valuable commodity and dozens of children constantly knock elbows while doing their work.
Samuel is barefoot but he’s still wearing his school uniform, a white shirt and gray pants. For a while he ignores the loud and ubiquitous chattering around him and concentrates on writing out his homework.
“Ten times 11 is 110,” he mutters to himself as he scribbles the equation. “Ten times 12 is 120.”
When he notices that he’s being photographed, his shaved-bald head shoots up and his gaze lifts curiously towards the camera hanging from my neck.
“You’re going to write about me?” Samuel asks as his eyes stay on the camera.
“Yes,” I answer. “Is that OK?”
“Yeah, but nothing bad,” Samuel replies earnestly.
Samuel goes on to explain that he lives in the apartment complex on Williams Avenue and attends Bardin Elementary School, and that he goes to the clubhouse when he needs help with his homework.
“When I ask Carlos, he helps me,” he says, in reference to Carlos Vargas, the director of the program and often the sole adult present. “My mom’s busy sometimes.”
Samuel says his mother has been away from home for a few days. His grandmother is taking care of him in the meantime.
Most days, Samuel admits, the clubhouse is the only place he can find someone to check his homework. But even there it’s a challenge.
With no regular volunteers or extra staff to help Vargas, Samuel competes with dozens of other children to grab Vargas’ attention.
Vargas admits the setup isn’t working.
“I know I’m not being effective,” says Vargas, 39, an energetic man with a dark, cherubic face. “These kids need time and personal attention—things a lot of them aren’t getting in school.”
~ ~ ~
The after-school program happens three times a week from 3pm to 6pm. A normal day begins with Vargas opening the doors to the clubhouse as more than dozen children wait restlessly outside.
Almost from the get-go, Vargas, a former Hollister police officer with a dozen years working in youth programs, struggles to balance several tasks at once. He helps children with their homework while simultaneously keeping order (which means shushing people or kicking them out of the clubhouse) and occasionally walking upstairs to check on older kids who have access to a computer with an Internet connection.
Vargas also takes time to pass out snacks to those who can prove they’ve completed their homework.
For the duration of the three hours, it seems some boy or girl is always tugging at him to ask a question.
While the program he’s running is now focused mostly on getting kids help with their homework, Vargas is trying to expand it to other areas. He’s trying to get volunteers who can tutor children—not just academically, but also to teach music or art or some sort of physical education activity.
But finding volunteers willing to make the trek out to the apartment complex across the street from Alisal High School has proved difficult.
To raise awareness about the program among the residents of the complex and the surrounding neighborhood, Vargas two weeks ago set up a movie night just outside the clubhouse. There, several families huddled in blankets under the stars to watch >>Cat in the Hat projected on a screen outside the clubhouse.
Later the next day, Vargas proudly shows me the digital photos of the event, which drew around 25 people. He says the event was worth the $300 he paid for the projector out of his own pocket—a necessary expenditure since the program itself is totally broke.
In fact, Vargas says, Barrio Unidos in Salinas is in such bad fiscal shape that he hasn’t received a paycheck in more than three weeks and he’s not sure when—or if—he’ll see another one.
The reason behind the bleak financial outlook is that Barrio Unidos’ director, Antonio Avalos, has not been able to apply for grant monies for nearly two years.
“He got out of jail in January after spending a year there for not paying his child support,” Vargas says plainly of Avalos, who is now working a full-time job elsewhere. “And he’s pretty much our grant writer.”
Avalos’ time in jail has cast an unfair shadow over Barrios Unidos, Vargas argues.
“Because of that, certain people don’t want to help us,” he says. “But I always tell people to not lose sight of the big picture: this is about taking care of children.”
The children who live in Gabilan Plaza Apartments face challenges that most American children don’t. While most are born in this country and are bilingual, many of them haven’t mastered English yet. Others live near—perhaps even with—gang members, who can often be seen boisterously riding up and down the neighborhood’s streets.
Almost all of their families live below the poverty level, and for most of the kids the after-school program is the only place they can find a somewhat structured and positive environment to head to after school.
Academically the group is mixed. Some students, like Samuel Salas, are self-motivated and excel. But others struggle to learn.
Maria Nuñez, 8, is one such girl. She’s a regular at the clubhouse and is always there, dividing her time between her homework and taking care of her little sister, who has a reputation for bawling at least once a day for various reasons.
On a recent Monday, I noticed that Maria was having serious trouble with her math homework. Vargas was wholly consumed attending to four other boys and girls on the other side of the clubhouse, so I knelt down beside her and asked if she needed help.
As I read aloud the word problem she was being asked to solve—which required her to round numbers to the nearest hundredths and thousandths—Maria nodded her head as if she understood. But when I asked her what the instructions meant, she looked me in the eyes and shrugged her shoulders.
I then repeated the problem in Spanish and together we completed a series of examples.
After a while she was able to complete some problems on her own. It was clear that what she needed was some more one-on-one tutoring.
When the other children noticed I was there to help they began asking me to help them with their homework, too.
Damien Bernal, 10, was one of them. Chomping on a bag of Chester’s Fries, Damien was stuck on a word problem and as a result had started to lose interest in his work, his focus floating to the conversations going on next to him.
I asked him to read me the problem that has him stumped.
“Find the number that is between the two given numbers,” he read slowly.
He said he doesn’t know what that means. I explained what “between” means, and before I was done speaking his pencil was speedily completing the problems. He did them all correctly.
Like many children there, Bernal’s academic skills are up to speed, but he faces a language barrier that turns the simplest problem into something very hard to crack.
I made the rounds around the clubhouse for the next two hours, helping students complete their homework and offering basic tips like “double check your work.”
After all the children had completed their work, they started to stream outside. Some started to play a game of soccer, others just chatted with their friends, and still others left for home to to eat their dinners.
Vargas walked me to my car, and halfway there he stopped and raised his arms. “Now do you know what I’m talking to you about?” he asked rhetorically.
I asked Vargas, who started the program in September, what he needs to keep it going.
“Money is great, because we’re down to no funds,” he says. “But what we really need are people who can lend their time to help. I’m going to keep this thing going as long as I can.”
~ ~ ~
East Salinas is one of the primary gang-recruiting centers in Monterey County and Vargas says the best way to keep children out of gangs is to give them options.
“There should be an after-school program like this every two blocks in this part of town,” he says. “That’s what they need.”
Vargas, who is from San Jose, admits that he grew up in a similar neighborhood. But sports programs gave him the motivation to graduate from high school and stay out of trouble.
“Having something to do is what keeps kids out of trouble,” Vargas says as he locks up the clubhouse for the day and peers out at the apartment complex, bustling with young bodies. “All it takes sometimes is one encouraging word.
“It’s so easy.”
To contact Vargas with donations or to schedule a time to volunteer for the program, call 710-1672.