South Shore kids welcome to the club
The din was ear-rattling. “We want food, We want food,” the kids chanted as large plastic storage chests were carted in at a quarter to noon.
Brown bag lunches were torn open revealing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, gummy bears, pretzels, and large Granny Smith green apples. Negotiating quickly began.
“I’ll give you my apple for your gummy bears,” one little dark-haired girl said to a neighboring girl, who just shook her head.
Gabriela Martinez, or “Gaby,” passed out milk to the some 35 club members crammed into the newest satellite site of the South Shore’s Boys and Girls Club.
According to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, juvenile crime decreases in neighborhoods where clubs operate. Nationally, 71 percent of club members live in urban or inner-city areas. Lake Park Apartments and housing off of Kahle Drive are among the few lower-income areas on the Nevada side of the South Shore.
The main club in South Tahoe Middle School’s multi-purpose room is a palace compared to the one-room converted apartment at the Kahle Drive complex. Still, in just a little more than two weeks the small room at Stateline has become a special place for the children. It’s their club. Without it, the kids would be doing “boring stuff,” according to new member Cyndi Villaseca, 9. When Martinez, 19, opens the doors at 10 a.m. kids are waiting outside.
Frank Luna, program director of the Lake Park site, said at first many kids came just for the guaranteed lunch and snack, now he often hears them refer to the place as “the club.”
The small apartment unit was an activity center for the complex’s children before being offered to the club. Luna said the nonprofit organization saw the site as a great opportunity to expand to Nevada and serve an area in need.
“There are kids that are almost totally unsupervised,” Luna said. “It’s almost like the inner city down here.”
The inner city is something Luna has personal experience with. He grew up going to a Boys and Girls Club in Los Angeles and as a young adult worked at a club in East Los Angeles.
“Where I grew up there weren’t many positives,” Luna said. “The club was so much fun. It was structured and supervised, but you didn’t realize it.”
As many as 50 youngsters a day have eaten lunch at the club since its opening June 22. Martinez, who has worked with the Boys and Girls Club for about a year, was selected to run the Lake Park site, in part because of her fluency in Spanish. In addition to arts-and-crafts projects, the kids play board games, and engage in outdoor games such as the balloon toss. When the school year starts they also will get help with their homework.
Ariana Rodriguez’s parents don’t get home from work until about 2:30 p.m. The 10-year-old comes to the club every day. She also stays after with several other club members to help Martinez clean up before close at 4 p.m.
It’s from these kids that Martinez chooses the 10 who get to take a field trip to the middle school site each week. Luna said he wants the children to have a chance to be part of a bigger club. On Wednesday morning the chosen few gathered early at the van. One parent came to question Martinez. He thought Martinez would be taking all of his three children to the middle school that day.
Martinez patiently explained that there was not room for everyone and only Veronica was invited because of her willingness to help out and her good behavior.
The youngsters seem to understand the privilege. When asked if it felt good to be picked for field trips Ariana beamed and said “Yeah.”
“Unfortunately we can’t take everyone, and I have to choose,” Martinez explained. “Some of the kids I choose their parents won’t give them permission. I don’t understand it.”
Martinez said only about four parents have come to meet her since the club opened.
“They really need the club,” Martinez said quietly, looking at some of her charges playing among the middle school club members. “At first, they wouldn’t talk to me, but now they’ve really opened up.”
During a round of bumper pool the kids talked matter-of-factly about their neighborhood.
“There are gangsters,” Cyndi said.
“I saw a group of gangsters drive up and jump out and start beating a guy with a baseball bat,” Ariana said.
“A metal baseball bat,” Cyndi added.
“They beat him up just because he didn’t want to be a part of their gang,” Ariana explained, registering no shock.
“I wouldn’t want to move,” Cyndi said. “That’s where all my friends are.”
The conversation switched back to the club, the memories of violence seemingly pushed away.
“Gaby is really good. She doesn’t lose her temper,” Cyndi said. “We really enjoy the club.”
“I like doing the art,” Ariana said.
The usual fee for new club members is $10, which pays for a membership card and T-shirt. It’s more about building a sense of ownership in the club than making money, Luna said. The $10 barely pays for the card and shirt.
At Lake Park 20 percent of club fees were waived or reduced. Luna said only $8 has been collected so far from an estimated 35 to 50 new members.
Boys and Girls Clubs usually take children from ages 5 to 18. Martinez said her kids range from 5 to 14. Sometimes younger children wander in with no apparent adult to claim them. Some are following an older brother or sister. An adult usually eventually comes to claim the child, Luna said.
Douglas County Investigator Ted Duzan said he estimates there are about two children to each apartment on Kahle Drive, and that lack of supervision is the primary reason for juvenile problems there.
“Some of the parents just don’t care. Others are working two jobs and just aren’t around. Having any type of program is certainly not going to hurt them,” Duzan said.
“I just believe in the clubs,” Luna said. “If there wasn’t a club there (Lake Park), would anyone step in and help those kids? I don’t think so.”
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