"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Hope Horner, supervisor of the city of Santa Clarita's Newhall Community Center. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: You've got a great new building that opened in January; what is inside it?
Horner: It's a 17,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility which includes many different program rooms such as a separate room for boxing; we have a classroom, a dance room, we have staff offices, as well as a wonderful outdoor playground and area for the youth to play in.
Signal: This is its owned by the city?
Horner: Yes, it's part of the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department.
Signal: How many people work with you?
Horner: Right now I have about 20 part-time staff as well as four full-time people who work for me, in addition to about 20 volunteers who also coordinate a lot of our programs.
Signal: The new building is new but the Community Center has actually been around awhile
Horner: Right. The Community Center has actually been in existence since 1994. It came into existence out of the community's desire for after-school programming for young people in the Newhall area. The center opened at its old site, which was on San Fernando Road, and it had been in existence there until about a few weeks ago when we opened up the brand-new facility on Market Street.
Signal: Why did you need such a big, new facility?
Horner: The old facility was limited in what we could do there. It was a one-room converted warehouse. We had used various partitions and curtains and things to divide it up for various programs, and it just got up to the point over the years that we just flat-out outgrew it.
And in addition to wanting to continue to meet the community's need for the various programs, it was getting more and more difficult to have homework tutoring and then right next door, literally a few feet away, boxing going on at the same time.
Signal: So it's primarily for kids?
Horner: Basically we serve 5 years old and up. We do have a lot of adults programs, as well, including an (English as a Second Language) class, a citizenship class, art classes, an aerobics class for adults. But primarily we're reaching out to young people in the neighborhood, to provide them after-school and summer activities.
Signal: How does the city's Community Center differ from what the Boys and Girls Club offers in Newhall?
Horner: We actually have a lot in common with the Boys and Girls Club, and we actually collaborate with them on a lot of programs such as sports and special events. We have great partnership with them. So we're similar in the way that were providing after-school activities for the youth and the community.
When we opened the center in '94, it was really to provide recreational and educational opportunities for low-income, high-risk youth. If you know where we're located right now on Market Street, you know we are in the East Newhall neighborhood. So we are primarily serving I'd say about 90 percent of our population is coming from the East Newhall neighborhood.
No matter how many facilities you open in Santa Clarita, with the growth of this valley, there is always going to be a need, and we were filled up immediately. I'm sure the Boys and Girls Clubs are still full. There is just never enough that we can do for the young people of Santa Clarita.
Signal: How many kids and adults do you serve?
Horner: Last year we had about 2,000 members. (Within) three weeks of opening the new facility, we have already signed up over 1,000. Normally, at the old facility, that would take us about six months to do. So we're already at our six-month attendance limit for the old facility, at our new facility.
Signal: You had 2,000 before; do they transfer over?
Horner: We have quite a few of our old members coming over to the new center, they have been eagerly awaiting this new facility. But we also have a lot of new members coming from the Valle Del Oro area, as well. They've been just basically waiting for this new facility to open, and they have joined us now.
Signal: What happens to the old place?
Horner: Boxing is still going on at the old facility through March, because we are still doing some renovations to the boxing area at the new facility. However, the city has leased that building and we will relinquish the release at the end of March.
Signal: Tell us about the boxing and ballet folklorico programs.
Horner: Those are two of the original programs of the Community Center. When it opened in 1994 we had boxing and ballet folklorico, a teen group and an after-school program. Since then, we have added about 36 more programs, so we have grown exponentially.
The boxing and folklorico programs are truly amazing. They are very unique programs. If you go to other cities few cities offer boxing, let alone boxing and folklorico, and our boxing we have had tremendous success with. We have a young man, Juan Ruiz Jr., who has gone on to be ranked in the top five of his weight division, in the featherweight, World of Professional Boxing, as well as our folklorico program, which is has won four national championships. They are just an amazing group of young people who are committed and dedicated to their sport and their activity, and they do a wonderful job and they make the city and themselves very proud.
Signal: Who teaches those programs?
Horner: For our folklorico program we have a instructor Luz Medina, who is probably the best in California at what she does. We're truly blessed to have her at the Community Center and working with these young people.
For our boxing program ... we have some really wonderful young men who are not only teaching them boxing but also being a role model to these young people. And then the program overall, the boxing is coordinated by Gilbert Amaro, (who) does an amazing job.
Signal: You mentioned homework assistance. Do you work with the school districts?
Horner: We have volunteers from local agencies who come over and help us. We have people from the Senior Center who come and tutor; we have Master's College students who help us; we have a amazing group of volunteers who come and help the youth in the afternoons with not only tutoring, but (also) with their reading.
Signal: What adult programs do you offer and who signs up for them?
Horner: At the new Community Center, we have been able to offer a lot more for adults because we do have the separate program areas. So currently we are offering an ESL class we're actually offering several ESL classes, all of which have waiting lists. That we are offering in partnership with College of the Canyons.
We also have an aerobics class called Adults in Motion, which one of my staff, Yolanda Calderon, is currently teaching. That class is also maxed out, and they're having a great time getting into shape. We also offer some art classes as well as a citizenship class. Again, we are going to continue to expand as we increase our partnerships within the community and have the new availability at the current site.
Signal: As quickly as you outgrew the last facility, this one is already full?
Horner: Right. And to be honest, that wasn't really a surprise, because we've just been growing and growing and growing really rapidly over the years, and with this wonderful new facility, everybody's just so excited about it. We literally had 250 sign-ups happening per day, and people were waiting three and four hours to get a membership card. But we're pretty creative; we're used to doing things in a very small building. So we'll do whatever it takes to make sure that we are doing as much as possible to meet the community need.
Signal: You mentioned that about 90 percent of your people come from the East Newhall area. Is it accurate to think that the Community Center is for the Latino population?
Horner: If you come to the Community Center and look around, you're going to notice that about 95 percent of our participants are Latino. Again, where we're located is pretty much what causes that to happen not to mention, it was the Latino community that approached the City Council in 1994 and said, we need a specific, unique, program for our young people in Newhall, to give them something to do other than join a gang, be on the streets or get involved in drugs. So the city was very specific about where not only the original Community Center was going to go, but where the new center is.
There is a reason why this is what I tell the teens who come to the Community Center there is a reason why this Community Center is in your back yard. It's because the city is committed to providing you with opportunities after school or during the summer. So come take advantage of it.
Signal: Twelve years later, what is the rationale behind siting the Community Center in Newhall as opposed to somewhere else?
Horner: It goes back to community need, and the community coming forward and saying, this is what we need, and the city was responsive to that. It was the Newhall community that came foreword, and as a result the old Community Center was opened in 1994, and again (it is) the same thing. The city saw the growth and obvious need that was being fulfilled at the (old) Community Center and as a result opened the new site right there in the East Newhall neighborhood.
Signal: There are some demographic similarities between parts of Canyon Country and Newhall, but Canyon Country doesn't have this type of city facility in the middle of a neighborhood. Are there efforts afoot to bring this type of service to Canyon Country?
Horner: Well, the Boys and Girls Club has a state-of-the-art facility right there at Sierra Vista (Junior High School), and the city was a part in making that happen. They are in the neighborhood, and I know there is plenty of youth going over there and enjoying that and taking advantage of those programs.
Signal: How long have you been with the Community Center?
Horner: I have been with the Community Center now for almost nine years. It seems like a blink in time, to be honest with you, because I truly love what I do. But it has almost been a decade, and I enjoy every day of this.
Signal: What's your background?
Horner: Actually I started with the city back in 1993 as recreation leader, working part-time in the after-school programs up at North Oaks Park and in some of the elementary schools there in Canyon Country, and worked my way up the ladder from Recreation Leader I to camp director and then moved over to Community Services back in 1997, and started working with the Anti-Gang Task Force and the Human Relations Forum and (was) involved in Pride Week and those things. Then this position opened up at the Community Center in 1998, and I really jumped at the chance because I felt that it really fell in line with my talents and abilities, (and because) it gave me an opportunity to really make a difference with young people in the community.
Signal: What are some of the big challenges these kids are facing?
Horner: The kids we work with at the Community Center are facing a lot of issues. A lot of them are dealing with the fact that their parents are working a lot of hours and are not always able to be there for them when they get home from school as much as they would like to be. They're facing gang issues, and that is a real, real big problem, and that's something that I know the Community Center has had a hand in helping to reduce the amount of incidents of gang violence in the Newhall area. Because the second generations of some of these gang members their brothers and sisters are coming to the Community Center.
What we're doing is reaching out to these kids and we're providing them with not only opportunities for karate and sports; for us, that's a means to a end. We're going beyond offering them recreational opportunities, because this is a way to get them through the door. Once they are in the door, they are being mentored by some really amazing people, which are my staff.
So they are doing boxing, but in the meantime they are learning discipline; they are learning self-respect; they are also getting to know our coaches; and they're finding out that there is light at the end of the tunnel and you don't have to be a gang member; there are other alternatives. There are positive things you can do with your life. Checking out a basketball to a kid is just our way of making that connection to help them help themselves and to be a productive citizen.
Signal: You probably don't have much trouble at the Community Center itself, since Deputy Joe Trejo is headquartered there
Horner: (Right.) And we're glad that he is there. He definitely provides that extra security and also that relationship with the community and the business owners.
I think what has really been important ... the entire time the construction was going on, there was not a single incident of graffiti at that construction site, as much as everybody anticipated it. It's because the community, the young people, really have ownership with what goes on there. They know that we care about them.
And I am not too na‘ve to say that we're never going to have graffiti at the new Community Center, but I try to stay eternally positive. (I) think it's the relationship with these kids that they take so much ownership; several of them were actually out there protecting the Community Center as it was being built. That's the kind of relationship we're trying to have with these kids, and hopefully they will take so much ownership with this new facility that they will see it as their second home and will not vandalize it or graffiti it.
Signal: Did you have some sort of focus groups or work with the kids who use the Community Center to figure out what kinds of programs they wanted?
Horner: Yes, as a matter of fact, and we do that in all of our programs. The programs that we have at the Community Center are not just my staff and me, sitting in a room thinking up something to, what should we do today? It really comes from teens, young people and adults, coming up and saying, "Hey, you know what? We really want to learn English. We want to know the process on how to become an American citizen. I want to do something after school; there's nothing to do."
That's where we open our ESL classes, our teen group room, and we provide opportunities for the teens. They have a voice and they have a connection, not only with the city but (also) with each other, and in a positive way.
Signal: There's a big divide between ethic populations in Santa Clarita. How can the Community Center help bridge that gap?
Horner: That is very important, and that is one of the things I believe the Community Center is committed to doing.
The Community Center has provided a bridge between the Latino community and City Hall. Every time the Latino community has said, "I have something to say; I just don't know how to do it, or I want to get the word out" they have used the Community Center as a way to get in touch with not only what's going on at City Hall, but (also) to put City Hall in touch with what's going on in Newhall.
We're always looking for ways to increase that flow of communication between not only the community and City Hall, but also between other people throughout the Santa Clarita Valley. I think as people become more comfortable with the (English) language through the ESL classes, feel better about themselves through increasing their fitness level and getting to know other people, that's when they feel more empowered to kind of go outside of their comfort zone. And I really believe that is what we are doing at the Community Center.
Signal: We really haven't seen the majority of the Latino population engaging itself politically in Santa Clarita. It the Community Center the right place for that to happen, or do you see that coming about in other ways?
Horner: I think it has happened, and I think the city has really made a concerted effort to reach out to the Latino community and include them in various meetings and outreach. For example, with the new Community Center, we have really competent city staff (members who) could have just gone ahead and made it happen. But there was a real commitment to enlist the community's input, not only on where it should be, but what should be in it, and how it should look, and all of that. They were all involved from step one.
And for those people who were involved with that, when they showed up at the grand opening and they saw all of their input come to life, they had tears in their eyes (everything from) "We need a emergency exit door at the end in this hall" to "that room needs to be moved to the other side so that it is farther away from this room or closer to that room" they were involved in this whole process. As a result, when they see their input come to life that the city (is) hearing them and making it happen that is empowering to them.
Again, every time they have approached the city and said, "We need assistance with this," the city has been responsive. There really is an open-door policy to all members of the community, and that is something we are committed to at the city of Santa Clarita.
Signal: People who have trouble with English tend to be fearful when they see the "government" come in and start enforcing codes and that sort of thing. Are ESL classes the answer? What are the best ways for people to get involved and overcome their fears of Big Brother coming in and doing something to them?
Horner: The city has done bilingual outreach to the community in regard to the Newhall redevelopment project and many other things. Again, the Community Center is that bridge.
It's really easy to go into the neighborhood and just pass out flyers in Spanish; some people will read them, some people won't. But when you have a community that is comfortable with the people at the Community Center and we all work for the city; we are city of Santa Clarita employees so when they come to us, they are coming to the city. They are feeling comfortable to come to us and say, "Hey, what is going on? What is going to happen?" We are that bridge and we can provide that information, whether it's in Spanish or English, whatever language it needs to be in to get the word out and to make sure people are informed about what's going on in their neighborhood.
Signal: It's more than just a place for a bunch of sports programs.
Horner: It definitely is.
Signal: Do you speak Spanish?
Horner: Yes I do.
Signal: Does everyone on your staff speak or understand Spanish?
Horner: Pretty much. I really try to hire bilingual staff; it's important.
Signal: What is the funding source for everything that happens at the Community Center?
Horner: The city of Santa Clarita provides the budget for the operations and staffing of the Community Center. We (also) have some very generous people in the community, such as the Auto Dealers Association, the Rotary Club, who provide us with sponsorships throughout the year to be able to provide the youth the opportunity to go to a boxing tournament or to host a Halloween fiesta at the Community Center. So we have some really generous people in the community who also help with the funding.
Signal: You don't have to write grants?
Horner: No, thankfully, we don't. This is a very generous community, and the city is really committed to making it happen at the Community Center.
Signal: You said you're full up and you've got waiting lists. What do people do if they've never been to the Community Center and want to sign up for a program?
Horner: They would need to come down to our new facility, which is at 22421 Market Street in East Newhall. We are behind the Jan Heidt (Newhall) Metrolink Station. They would come in, we have some forms for them that they would need to fill out, and then we would enroll them in the classes that are open. The ones that are not, we will be starting a new session in April. So they can come back and register at that time.
But our after-school program is not full. That involves arts and crafts and tutoring and some sporting activities, so they are welcome to come and take part in that.
Signal: After nine years, what excites you about the Community Center?
Horner: What excites me is that we not only change lives; we save lives at the Community Center. That may sound melodramatic, but it's absolutely true. I am committed to hiring people to work at the Community Center that I call it the three C's: They're caring, they're confident and they're committed. And I have that kind of staff at the Community Center.
That's what I believe, and I believe in that. What I am doing at the Community Center is, like I said, not just checking out basketballs or hitting a heavy bag, but actually changing lives. We've been able to do that everything from helping people get off of drugs, to get out of gangs or stay out of gangs altogether, to people who are homeless who find a way through us to get back on their feet.
When you come to work every day, you're not just moving pens around or just punching a time card. You're actually making a difference. I can't think of more motivation than that.
Signal: You mentioned that people come back and their younger siblings sign up. Do you have people who come back after a number of years to tell you what they're doing now?
Horner: Absolutely. I always tell them. "You make me feel old."
For instance, one young lady came to this girls group that I run; it's called GIG (Girls Issues Group). It's a partnership with the Santa Clarita Valley Youth Project. We've always had the Girls Issues Group on Mondays at the Barnabus House in Newhall. She took a chance. She was gone for a year; she had been in my group for three years and she kind of drifted off, and I always kind of worried about her and wondered where she was. She took a chance and came to Barnabus House on a Monday to see if we were there. And sure enough, we were. She came looking for me because she wanted to tell me that thanks to GIG, she's not pregnant, she's going to college, and she's very excited about the possibility of her life. Something like that just moves me to tears. Because that's somebody who I didn't call on the phone, "How are you doing?" She wanted to come and say, "Hey, look at me, I did good. I hung in there, and thank you for your support."
Even at our grand opening, we had several people who came in and said, "Hey, Hope remember me? I'm doing good, I have a job and I am making something of my life." To work at a place for nine years is really rewarding because you watch these kids grow up. There are some I have watched go down the wrong road, and some you just can't help. But there are others that time you spent with them, the way you were involved with them, and the program has truly changed their life that's, like I said, that's where I get my motivation to come to work every day.
Signal: What's on the horizon? What do you need at the Community Center?
Horner: Right now we're completely overwhelmed with the amount of people that are showing up. We are trying to get everybody enrolled and everybody into their classes. We are really looking to increase our partnerships throughout the community, with College of the Canyons and the Hispanic Business Committee, to be able to provide more tutoring for our young people, to be able to provide more sports programs, to provide job assistance.
We've got a lot more up our sleeve that is coming, and now that we have the facility, we can really do it. And it's going to be amazing.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.