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Ten-year-old Simone “was thinking of something fluffy” and so, with sensors, circuit boards, light bulbs, and an ordinary cardboard box, she created ‘Robo-bunny’ during afterschool sessions at the Neighborhood Youth Association’s newest learning center, in Watts.

“For the eyes … I put in blue light bulbs and the body is a box that I painted blue, but then I glued paper onto it. It all works on a computer that is plugged up to this device called the Hummingbird, which is inside the bunny,” she said.

“I’m able to make the arms move around with a sensor [so] that, when I come close, the bunny will move around. I could have the tail wiggle, if I want.”

What Simone and other students want is central to NYA’s student-focused STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program, which meets Wednesdays at 4 p.m. at the center. Students gain self-confidence while learning critical thinking, math, writing and other skills, according to Randy Hirt, director of technology and education programs.

“Robo-bunny greets visitors and says ‘hop, hop, hop’ and moves its hands back and forth and his eyes light up and when you get close it gets excited. When you leave it says goodbye,” said Hirt. Added features, like making tails wiggle and eyes bulge, require mastery of increasingly sophisticated programming.

“The key is helping the children do things on their own,” he said. “It builds their self-confidence because it’s their project.”

With room for 20 students in the third, fourth and fifth grades, the center, which opened Jan. 19, aims to grow organically, said the Rev. Jennifer Gutierrez, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church where the afterschool classes are held.

“It’s a very supportive environment, where the congregation is present to also support what we’re doing,” said Dawn Miralle, director of satellite centers. “The energy and feeling there are amazing. The potential to build [the program] feels really good.”

‘Personal Best’ amid challenging circumstances

The 2.12-square-mile Watts neighborhood in South Los Angeles has one of the highest population densities in the nation, averaging more than 17,000 people per square mile. A majority of its residents, about 61 percent, are Latino, with African Americans making up about 37 percent; median annual income in 2008 averaged about $25,000, compared to about $57,000 nationally.

When Gutierrez arrived at St. John’s about a year ago, she quickly learned about the local middle school’s history of fighting, racial tensions and high dropout rates. Other schools in the area had such low academic performance index scores that “if you get much lower, you’re in danger of being taken over by the state,” she said.

Recent reports of widening achievement gaps among Latino and African American students in the California Common Core learning goals underscore the need for partnerships like the one with NYA, which boasts a 100-percent college placement rate for its high school graduates in the past seven years, according to Robert Williams, NYA managing trustee and diocesan canon for community relations.

Gutierrez agreed, adding that the partnership means that “we want to make a difference, not just in the educational component but in community building and teaching kids here different leadership and conflict resolution skills.”

The afterschool center is open from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and offers ‘Personal Best,’ an academic skills building program, as well as the Wednesday STEM experiential learning component. Homework assistance and a youth leadership academy are also available.

The church is providing the space and NYA offers the program “to make a difference for children in Watts,” says Gutierrez.

St. John’s member Georgetta Blunt, 71, a retired longshore worker and neighborhood resident, wants to be part of that difference.

Blunt volunteers three days a week at the center helping with homework and reading because, she says, “the bottom line is, the children need to have fun reading. I’m there to try to make it fun for them.

Sometimes,” she added, “I just sit and ask them how was your day at school, something just that simple, so the children know I’m going to be here for them.”

For Gutierrez, the partnership is part of a larger question: “Does the church want to be relevant, particularly in a community like Watts, where there’s so much need?”

And there is “also a lot of creativity and gifts and things people have to share,” Gutierrez said. “There are pretty strong communities here. This is an opportunity to not only serve a need, but to tap into people’s unused creativity and to show that through the strength of community and doing something together we can make a real difference in the neighborhood.

Ministry on the ground: ‘invest in youth’

Founded in the late 1890s, NYA was patterned after the settlement house model of social service. It was called the Church of the Neighborhood and later the Neighborhood Settlement, according to Williams, who also serves as diocesan historiographer.

Initially, the agency was located in downtown Los Angeles, serving immigrant communities before relocating in the 1940s to Westside areas where gang violence and poverty were prevalent.

“NYA is the second-oldest diocesan institution after Good Samaritan Hospital” and currently has learning centers in six Los Angeles districts: downtown, Mar Vista, Mid-City, South L.A., Venice and Watts, Williams told The Episcopal News.

He said the idea for developing the most recent center in Watts “came to us from pastors on the ground. What they wanted was investment in their youth.”

The Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders, chaired by Bishop Jon Bruno, partnered with NYA to create the center, funded by Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and a Westside rabbi. “We are so grateful for the support,” Williams said.

“Opening the Watts campus the day after the Martin Luther King holiday was a joyful milestone in NYA’s excellent partnership with St. John’s,” he added. “The program is an ongoing outcome of interfaith and non-sectarian collaboration begun on the occasion of last summer’s 50th anniversary of the Watts Revolt in which 34 people died and $40 million in property damage occurred in the struggle for civil rights.”

 ‘Personal Best’ and making a difference

Reyna Juan, 26, can attest that NYA’s trademark ‘Personal Best’ curriculum inspired her to achieve new goals. The curriculum engages children from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Juan recalled being a “pretty shy and awkward” eighth grader living in L.A.’s Mar Vista neighborhood when she first attended NYA’s Academy Hall site at Vermont and El Segundo. The program was “one of the greatest things that could have happened,” she told the News.

“I got to know the instructors there,” she recalled. “They offered academic support. It wasn’t something a lot of kids in my particular circle of friends were super-excited about … the value associated with getting an education and pursuing academic endeavors.”

But in a very short time, she said, “I felt like NYA was my second home” and by the time she graduated high school, “I was involved in sports, was the student body president. I even felt comfortable emceeing the scholarship dinner.

“When I started going to NYA and saw that people cared about getting an education and wanted me to succeed and believed in me, I started believing in myself, too.”

That support continued beyond high school graduation; NYA granted her a scholarship while she attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “If it hadn’t been for the self-confidence they nurtured in me, I wouldn’t have gone on to college,” Juan said. “I would have been too embarrassed to continue doing well in school.”

She left a position as an assistant at a law firm to return to teach at NYA where “I feel like I’m actually making a difference in the students’ lives,” she told the News.

“Just seeing their growth, academically and personally, is so motivating. One of the most important things I want to teach them is to believe in themselves and see value in education. A lot of them have a difficult time in school and are already behind, so they come in with a defeated attitude sometimes.”

Bridging ‘achievement gap’

NYA’s Williams says the agency “is standing in the gap — the achievement gap between the state’s Common Core curriculum and what students get or don’t get in public or private school.”

Students like Donyae Thomas, 10, a fifth grader who says if he didn’t attend the Watts center four days a week after school, he’d probably be at home just watching TV or playing at the park with his friends.

Instead, he is recreating robotically one of his favorites: a purple and black dinosaur, a raptor, using the Hummingbird technology.

He is also making a mask and writing the story of its life.

“It’s orange with lots of dots and squiggly lines. The tongue is sticking out because he’s from a weird land. I haven’t made up the land that he’s from, I’m still thinking about that.”

Creating the mask — and giving it a personality, locating it in time and space, even describing the mask’s dreams — is another of the center’s programs designed to improve student writing skills while tapping into their creativity, according to Zaida Mejia, 25, the center’s lead instructor.

“We focus on writing and reading skills. For the writing part, they had to write a letter to anyone — an individual, a friend of the mask, the mom, the dad, the sister, — and they had to pretend to be the mask and to write about their surroundings, about the weather, to describe where the mask lives,” she said.

A future project includes creating a garden at the church because “we try to set up the curriculum so students won’t get bored,” Mejia said. “We don’t want it to just be homework-based.”

Director of satellite centers Dawn Miralle believes that, through making local connections with middle school teachers and counselors and by word of mouth, the program will continue to grow. In the meantime, she said, “The approach we take is, even if we’ve got two students we’re going to provide them an excellent program,” she said.

As NYA observes its 110th anniversary this year, the agency is seeking additional support to continue reaching out to youth, according to Williams.

“NYA is turning 110 this year, and what a birthday present we are about to receive: The first $110,000 in gifts made to NYA Scholarship and Personal Best programs between Feb. 1 and June 1, 2016 will be matched by a special anniversary grant funded through the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, a Corporation Sole,” Williams said. (See sidebar below for more information about the matching grant.)

In 1971, diocesan convention delegates passed a resolution calling upon Southland Episcopalians to donate to NYA in honor of their own birthdays “as a great way of helping NYA students while giving thanks for another year of life and service,” Williams said. “NYA’s century-plus of service deserves our attention to help the agency build a strong future. A great achievement for us as a diocesan community will be to help NYA strengthen its work with students and families. Let’s make that investment now.”