Lanark Park taken back from gangs

Rick Coca (Daily News) | January 25, 2008

CANOGA PARK – It’s easy to miss the positive interaction going on at Lanark Park as teens target each other during a game of dodge ball.

But in an area where kids often dodge gangs and drugs daily, eluding a soft rubber ball among friends in the park’s Extreme Teens Friday Night program is definitely a good thing.

The once-a-week program, which lets teens play sports and enjoy a meal and the company of friends, staff and mentors, has slowly made Lanark’s gym and Teen Center the place to be on a Friday night.

“You get a good vibe once you step in here,” said Sherryl Olguin, 15, a Chatsworth High School student, who believes the program has taught her sportsmanship and trust. She said she and other older kids have gained some maturity while learning to help the younger ones.

“Right here, you can forget about everything going on outside,” she said.

It wasn’t always that way.

Curbing gang violence

The program started in May 2006 as the Los Angeles Police Department worked to curb gang-related violence amid a 44percent jump in such crimes by year’s end in the San Fernando Valley. The Canoga Park Alabama gang members roamed the streets and earned a spot on the city’s top 10 list of most dangerous gangs.

“Historically, Lanark Park has been an area where a lot of gang activity has (occurred)” said LAPD Officer Alex Padron, the area’s senior lead officer and community liaison, adding that drug deals were also a major problem.

Just a couple of weeks after Extreme Teens debuted, Padron said, the department gave him a seven-member task force made up of LAPD recruits just short of graduation.

He put them all on patrol at the park.

“And that’s where we turned a corner,” Padron said. “When you put that many coppers that many days in a tight area the size of Lanark Park, it makes a big difference. It seems like a normal park, like anywhere else in the city, now.”

Sandy Kievman, a community outreach specialist for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, resurrected the program that she had helped start in the late 1980s as a staffer for then-City Councilwoman Joy Picus.

Filling a gap for kids

The program’s latest incarnation is supported by the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, the San Fernando Valley Coalition on Gangs, and the Canoga Park Neighborhood Council.

An extension of the park’s Teen Center, which is open six days a week, Extreme Teens fills a gap for the kids, many of whom come from low-income families, Kievman said.

The Van Nuys Recreation Center introduced a similar program in September.

Despite a 5percent drop in gang crime in the entire Valley for 2007, gang crime rose 25percent in Van Nuys – much of that attributed to younger gang members, police said.

“One of the biggest complaints is there’s nothing to do, and when kids have nothing to do, kids are likely to get into trouble,” Kievman said.

Abigail Robles, a 15-year-old boy with closely cropped hair and a wispy mustache, would agree. In his T-shirt with a “Lanark Teen Center” logo, the Canoga Park High School student understands what the program means for him.

“It keeps me away from trouble,” Robles said between games of dodge ball. “Keeps me busy. When you’re outside, it seems like the trouble comes to you.”

Through the park’s Clean and Safe Spaces merit system, which sponsors field trips and other events, Robles and about 150 other active teen club members have gone to sporting events, snow scenes and theme parks.

Showing that they care

Ed Young is a member of the West Hills Optimist Club that alternates – with Communities in Schools, the Kiwanis Club of Canoga Park-Reseda and the Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch – in providing meals for the teens after their Friday night games.

“There are adults in the community, older adults like me, who care about these kids,” Young said. “One way we show them we care is to feed them.”

A retired probation officer, Young, 71, said the teenagers’ interactions with adult volunteers can only help the kids stay away from gangs and other negative influences.

“Gangs are not something that are invisible to these kids,” Young said. “These kids have to live and they have to go to school. … It’s very much in their consciousness.”

As about 50 kids dodged balls around him, Juan Aynat, Lanark’s senior recreation director, said the program initially took some getting used to for the kids, who couldn’t understand why they should show up on a Friday night.

“Now they’re here whether we want them here or not,” Aynat joked. “This is like their front (yard) and backyard.”

Watching the teens is like witnessing a well-rehearsed routine punctuated by laughter and good-natured cajoling. After the dodge-ball matches, they quickly line up for pizza, with the winning team first.

“They’re very close,” Aynat said. “They don’t fight each other. They protect each other outside of the group.”

Now that he and the rest of his staff – including Daniel Hernandez, who oversees the teen club and merit system at the park – have earned the teens’ trust, they want to see the kids improve in school.

While about 10percent of the kids are exceptional students, many others need help, Aynat said.

“It’s definitely part of the program that hasn’t blossomed yet,” he said.

He and his staff want the kids to start thinking about a life beyond Canoga Park – a life that includes college. He plans to reward kids who show him their report cards and then show improvement on the next.

Still, the program has grown by leaps and bounds in a relatively short amount of time, Aynat said.

And something else has happened during the indoor soccer games, field trips to Knott’s Berry Farm and pizza-eating in the teen center.

The kids have become proud to belong to something good.

He often sees them already wearing their “Lanark Teen Center” and “Extreme Teens” T-shirts when they come directly from school to the park, Aynat said.

Young Robles knows why.

“Representing where we stay at: Lanark,” he said. “The privilege of representing.”

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