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Youth Group Offers Hope to Pico Neighborhood Teens

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

August 16 -- Ana G. Jara had her work cut out for her when she tried to sell Maria Rodriguez on a church youth group.

Rodriguez -- who normally only sees the inside of a church for weddings and funerals -- was skeptical that YoungLife, a nondenominational Christian ministry to middle and high school students, would help the Pico Neighborhood kids she worked with.

But when Rodriguez noticed that the teens were showing up on Mondays calm and centered, she made the connection and got in touch with Jara.

“Our first encounter was like a tennis match,” recalled Rodriguez, now a member of the YoungLife board in the Pico Neighborhood, though still not a churchgoer. “I was very hesitant and reserved at the beginning.

“Our relationship grew out of the evidence that I saw,” she said.

Ruth Campos, Dario Pulchini, Ana G. Jara and Luis Arias at Virginia Avenue Park (Photo by Ann K. Williams)

One teenager who Rodriguez said was “flying off every two seconds,” came back from weekends with Young Life “a very calm kid.”

“They need to believe in something, they need that hope,” Rodriguez said.

The teens themselves are more likely to talk about the fun they have, playing games and relaxing with their friends. But the more they talk, the more it’s evident that the games fill a deeper need than fleeting diversion.

“Once a week, I’m allowed to do anything I want, be with my friends,” explained Ruth Campos, a senior at Santa Monica High School.

YoungLife is a place where Ruth -- who felt “overwhelmed” by all the work she had to do during her Junior year -- can “be a child,” she said.

Other young participants agree the group provides a much-needed break in their stressful routines.

“We play games that I have never played before,” said SAMOHI sophomore Darius Pulchini. “We can forget about every problem.”

The break in the routine can become something more. The weekly meetings were “a night I didn’t have to be at home,” said Jara, who first joined YoungLife in sixth grade.

“The break turned into a lifetime commitment,” she said.

And at weekend and summer camp, the kids have even more of a chance to relax and expand their horizons, Jara said.

“We push kids to the limits,” said Jara, who along with leading the Pico neighborhood branch of YoungLife, is co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) and sits on the board of the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA).

Boot camp night, mountain biking, a ropes course, even a giant swing are designed to teach the attitudes the teens will need to overcome obstacles as they approach adulthood.

The swing that drops the teens from a great height, said Jara, teaches faith and a willingness to take risks.

The messy, muddy games that recent SAMOHI graduate Luis Arias remembers with a laugh, teach them that “we’re all messy in life.”

And the stories they study, like the story of the leper -- Campos’ favorite -- teaches the young people, who sometimes feel unwanted by the world around them, that God “is willing to accept everybody and love them.”

Jara builds on the connection to the community in a deliberate and conscious way.

“The kids are integrated into leadership roles,” she said, with a smile and a nod to Campos who beamed with pride.

“We are invested in our community… there’s no one from outside,” Jara said. The leaders are born here and live here,” she said, calling them “live resources” for the teens.

Rodriguez emphasized the “interconnectedness between the community and the schools.”

“YoungLife helps my work at school,” Rodriguez said, and Jara added “It helps (the students’) work at school.”

This year’s summer camp got underway Sunday. The teens held bake sales and carwashes and teamed up with Trinity Baptist, a north-of-Wilshire church whose youth group is going with the Pico neighborhood kids.

They’ve worked together to raise the $430-per-camper it takes to send the teens for a week at Camp Challenge, northeast of Sacramento.

Jara invites anyone who’s interested in getting involved to contact her at (323) 933-1382 or at anagjara@yahoo.com

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