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Pico Youth and Family Center in Santa Monica Sees New Hope  

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 4, 2017 -- Nearly two years ago, the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC), which provides support services for at-risk youth in Santa Monica’s most diverse neighborhood, needed a life line of its own.

Mired in controversy and financially abandoned by the City, the center faced bankruptcy, was shedding staff and fighting to remain on the mission it embarked on fifteen years ago.

But PYFC survived. And as it starts 2017, its leader says the nonprofit organization –- the only one of its kind in Santa Monica -- is growing stronger as it tries to emerge from the financial straits that threatened to shutter it in the spring of 2015 ("Santa Monica Pico Youth And Family Center May Have to Close," May 22, 2015).

“We’re very hopeful that we can start 2017 with good will,” said Oscar De La Torre, the organization’s executive director and a member of the local school board. He also ran a low-key, and ultimately unsuccessful, race for the City Council this November.

“The fact is that we survived because of the enormous support we have in the community,” he said.

Picture of Pico Youth and Family Center meeting in 2015
Pico Youth and Family Center group meeting last year. (Photo courtesy PYFC)

Between July and September, the organization raised $50,000 in private donations, meeting the goal needed to take advantage of a $50,000 matching grant offered by its one-time nemesis, the City Council, De La Torre said.

Now the PYFC is working hard to raise another $100,000 over the next six months. The group’s next fundraiser -- the 9th Annual Art for Hearts event -- takes place on February 18. More information is available at www.picoyouth.org

New partners are chipping in, including Lucas Donat, chief brand officer for TruCar and a top official with Tiny Rebellion, two Santa Monica hi-tech firms interested in helping under-served populations make headway in the digital age ("Newly Remodeled Pico Youth and Family Center Connects with Silicon Valley, Others, as it Fights to Stay Open," March 12, 2015).

An old friend named Garrick Stoner also secured a $20,000 grant from the Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Family Foundation for the center’s music studio and other programs.

This time, a matching grant from the City hasn’t been offered, De La Torre said, although he added that he hasn’t given up on the possibility.

“It would be awesome,” De La Torre said. “You need to ask, 'What is a life worth?' We save human lives. We think that’s worth $50,000.”

The center, at 715 Pico Boulevard, currently serves 139 youngsters and family members, down from a high of 240 clients in its caseload several years ago when its funding hovered around $400,000, de la Torre said.

The Pico neighborhood’s problems still need special attention, he said. It is Santa Monica’s poorest area, and the one most heavily populated by minorities. Test scores show the youth there are still more likely to do poorly than their white counterparts.

And gentrification is worsening, he said, as real estate soars in value in the Southland, especially Santa Monica.

“People of color are being pushed out of Santa Monica. You can see it,” de la Torre said.

But he said the center remains committed to fighting back with programs that show young people and their families new possibilities for the future.

The center offers everything from free haircuts during the holidays to lessons in computer coding and filmmaking, a music studio and a host of business leaders willing to serve as mentors.

PYFC’s intervention continues to steer local youth away from gangs, de la Torre said, and the work it does has a “multiplying effect” that reaches beyond Santa Monica.

Each intervention ripples through the rest of the “four corners” of the Westside where gangs are active -- Culver City, Venice, and other parts of West Los Angeles, he said.

“We have impact,” de la Torre said.

PYFC is the only nonprofit in Santa Monica that focuses on the minority population and is headed and staffed by people of color, de la Torre said.

The center traces its roots to a string of fatal shootings that rcked the Pico Neighborhood in 1998. It was initially granted more than $350,000 by the City in 2001.

But its relationship with the City has been rocky and politically strained in recent years.

In 2013, the City cut its funding by $90,000 in the wake of a staff recommendation that PYFC become a referral center, sending its clients elsewhere.

A staff report that year said PYFC had shifted focus to “social justice and community organizing,” straying from the original intent that the City first funded.

After a one-year bailout of $190,000 in 2014, the center was rejected for any direct funding last year -- a financial free fall from the $350,000 PYFC had been receiving from the City in its first decade ("Santa Monica Youth Center Denied Grant after Final Plea for Funding," June 24, 2015).

The City’s funding represented about 40 percent of the center’s budget. Aside from that funding and a 10 percent draw annually from a $1.6 million endowment from late philanthropist Peggy Bergmann, the center was on its own financially.

De La Torre dismissed the City’s move to de-fund the PYFC as having “nothing to do with money” and more to do with City officials at odds with PYFC’s progressive political agenda.

De La Torre’s own tendency to be outspoken on issues that run contrary to the city’s political establishment has also been thorny, although he says the focus should not be on him and that the perception is misguided.

“People tried to make it about me, but it never has been," de la Torre said. "It’s about the kids. It has always been for the kids.”

Today, De La Torre still complains about other, more expensive controversies at City Hall that were handled less punitively than the one involving PYFC. He said the financial questions were resolved and confined to problems with bookkeeping that never “involved more than $6,000” to begin with.

The City’s biennial budget tops $1 billion.

But de la Torre also believes a change of attitude toward the center might be evolving. City Manager Rick Cole, who was hired about two years ago, “has a good heart and it is my belief he is a true progressive.”

He said he believes Council Member Tony Vazquez, who just finished a one-year term as the first Hispanic mayor in the City’s history, is on the center’s side. Vazquez was replaced by Mayor Pro Tempore Ted Winterer, an ally, in December.

“We’re hopeful with Ted, too,” De La Torre said. “He has the kind of honor that puts principles before politics."

For more information about the Pico Neiborhood and its residents, see The Lookout's three-part series publiched in 2004, "Inside the Pico Neighborhood."

"PART I: A World Apart," December 1, 2004
"PART II: On the Front Lines," December 2, 2004
"PART III: Youth and Street Violence," December 7, 2004


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