By Raymond R. Beltran
They were supposed to be at the YMCA’s Balboa Community Youth Center, but due to a fall out amongst the Y’s staff, some thirty five kids had their Christmas celebration in a recreation hall below a church in East Side San Diego.
They’re not homeless, just inner city youth in need of a place to hang their hats when school and home become equal to a rock and a hard place. Some are from struggling single parent homes, some are foreign refugees, others have parents with drug problems, and two are orphans who’ve become legal adults with nowhere to go. All fit the at-risk description, but none are unfortunate considering their commitment to each other.
Last month, their Balboa Community Youth Center, run by the YMCA, underwent new directorship, and two staff that had been there several years were sent walking, one fired another resigned.
Thirty five kids decided to follow.
For the past month, they’ve been functioning as the Alpha Omega Creative Arts Youth Center in a hall provided by the Church of Christ along El Cajon Boulevard in East San Diego, and this Tuesday, former YMCA employees, Kalif Price and Katie Price (no relation), organized a raging Christmas party for the children with presents, a full course meal, a deejay, dancing, and a visit from Ol’ Saint Nick.
“A lot of miracles happened,” said 26 year old Kalif in the midst of ecstatically screaming children. With no funds, he and Katie began a campaign to accept Christmas gifts for the children who attend their newly established arts programs held at the church. Using the internet and networking websites, like Craig’s List, they received an abundance of responses.
A close-by neighbor cooked up a meal that included ham, turkey and a buffet of holiday fixings. Another provided Santa and a slew of internet patrons filled in the cracks. Kalif received an email response from an anonymous San Diegan who dropped $300 for a deejay. North Park residents flooded Santa’s bag with gifts. Even the Sierra Club and Magic 92.5’s radio personality, Javier the X-Man, added to the spoils.
Cathy Tooley, an elementary school teacher and mother of four children, three of which are adopted, held back tears as she observed the joyous melee.
“I’m the exception,” Tooley says about being a parent with a profession. “These kids come from broken families and this is going to be their only Christmas.”
She and her husband, both white, have one son and three black adopted daughters. She had been sending the children to the YMCA for Kalif’s arts programs, where students used to learn multi-cultural dance and history lessons.
“The center brings cultural interaction, the life we can’t provide, a diverse setting,” she says.
Tooley’s children are among the youth that followed Kalif and Katie out of YMCA doors last month. “The community followed because they knew they would take care of these kids,” she says.
Kalif, a former YMCA Youth Program Director, says when a new director took over the Balboa Community Youth Center in North Park two months ago, programs began to shut down, grant money started to disappear, and in what he calls a “traumatizing experience for the kids,” he was literally kicked out of the building.
“Basically, they told us that the youth center isn’t bringing in enough money and we’re going to have to make some changes,” remembers Kalif, who had headed a grant writing campaign to find the Y over $100,000 to keep the programs available.
“The kids in North Park, at risk inner city kids, that need to learn social skills and about life had yoga, kafueta (African dance) and hip hop dance,” he says.
Throughout his employment there, he says the building acquired multiple recreation rooms, a dance hall with a stage, a recording studio, a kitchen and numerous field trips to cultural centers like Balboa Park’s World Beat and Chicano Park in Barrio Logan. It was open to a population, mostly, half Latino and half black, Monday through Saturday when there’s a gap between after-school and parents getting home from work.
YMCA Representative Pattie Griffin has been quoted saying Kalif was fired for personnel matters, but he says it was because he helped students picket during the immigration marches that took place earlier this year.
“When a child comes up to you and says, ‘My dad’s been deported,’ what do you do?” he says.
In return, his students took another stand and walked out on the Y with Kalif and Katie in late October. Luckily, a youth missionary from Church of Christ, Father Eric Cimuchowski, opened up his church doors as the new Alpha Omega Community Youth Center to house the kids’ activities.
This month, Christmas, and next year, a new youth center, says Kalif. He and Katie put out about $100 of their own money to supply the children with footballs, backpacks, toy cars, a number of dolls and a Christmas they may not have had otherwise.
“A lot of miracles happened in these passed five years,” Kalif says. “Now, we want to secure a location, but I want something secure that can’t be taken away.”