One Tough Mother

By Laura Laughlin Sophia Lopez-Espindola's grassroots organization has survived bullets, business setbacks and political pitfalls

The story of the Phoenix chapter of Mothers Against Gangs -- how it began, how it has evolved and survived over the years -- begins with a 3 a.m. knock on a patio door.

It was the type of summons every parent dreads, a startling middle-of-the night announcement that a child has been hurt. Sophia Lopez and her husband headed to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, hoping that their son, Edward, hadn't been seriously injured.

They found him lying peacefully in a hospital bed. He was sitting up, his hands folded over his chest. A small bandage on the left side of his forehead hid a clean entrance wound where a bullet had pierced his brain and effectively ended his life. He was breathing with the help of a respirator.

Former gang member Frank Garcia hopes to inspire others.
Paolo Vescia
Former gang member Frank Garcia hopes to inspire others.
Former gang member Frank Garcia hopes to inspire others.
Paolo Vescia
Former gang member Frank Garcia hopes to inspire others.

Edward Joe Anthony Lopez, a good kid and an accomplished athlete, had been shot in the crossfire of a battle between two gangs. He died about 5 a.m. on January 5, 1992, two hours after his life-support system was disconnected.

It was a quiet finish to the life of the 16-year-old Tolleson High School student. But it prompted his mother to start making noise. Shocked and confused by the death of a son she believed had no ties to gangs, Lopez began making phone calls and writing letters, seeking meetings, answers, help. She asked about the details of the shooting, criticized police handling of the case, fumed at a society that offered no support for parents like herself, argued against the decision not to prosecute the youth who shot Edward. She also asked what could be done to stop the gang violence in the Phoenix area.

Her quest for answers led her to start a chapter of Mothers Against Gangs -- based on a similar organization in Chicago. Nearly eight years after Edward's death and seven years after starting Mothers Against Gangs, Lopez, who now goes by Lopez-Espindola, continues her efforts to end gang violence. But while her mission is the same, her methods as well as the structure and membership of her group have changed dramatically over the years.

In a journey Lopez-Espindola calls "pretty rocky," she has enjoyed attention and accolades, but has also weathered disappointments, gunshots, even a criminal conviction for election fraud. The group has grown from a tiny, self-financed operation run out of Lopez-Espindola's Maryvale home to an organization with its own center, a paid staff of seven, a volunteer pool of about 200 people and an annual budget of $326,000.

The nonprofit program, funded by donations and grants, recently scored big when it was selected by Save the Children, a 75-year-old international aid organization, as one of eight urban centers to participate in a $20 million national effort to increase the availability and quality of after-school options for children. Save the Children leaders say they see a successful formula for helping kids in Mothers Against Gangs. It's a partnership that will translate into at least $150,000 in cash and in-kind services for Lopez-Espindola's group.

And despite the name, mothers aren't really the driving force behind the organization anymore. Instead, kids are helping kids. And they're making a difference.

For the past six years, Jennie Palomo spent much of her time behind the center's reception desk. She found her way there when she was a 17-year-old runaway and high school dropout.

Her mother abandoned Palomo and her four siblings when she was 7 years old. The oldest, she had taken on adult responsibilities at an early age, helping her father raise the younger children. Her father battled alcoholism, her aunt -- a sort of surrogate mother -- had died.

An honor student in high school, Palomo says she wasn't officially in a gang, but all her friends were. She was involved in drugs and alcohol, although not heavily. She wanted to get away from her house, to be on her own, but she didn't know what to do with herself. So when Lopez-Espindola's daughter Venus (a friend of Palomo's brother) suggested she come down to the Mothers Against Gangs center, she did. She would hang out, answer phones and shadow Lopez-Espindola.

"She was the only one working at the center at the time, so whenever she left, she would actually have to shut down the center. And she would take me and another guy along with her to meetings and schools," Palomo says.

Slowly, Palomo got interested in the work the organization did. She began to volunteer, helping run grief support groups for kids. She says a lot of adult volunteers and staffers would leave after a short stint, so kids were getting disillusioned. Having kids work with other kids is a more effective way of getting through to them, she believes.

Palomo says Lopez-Espindola helped her get into a charter school, where she obtained her high school diploma. She got a scholarship to Phoenix College, which she now attends in addition to working a new job at a bank. She plans to go to law school someday and would like to live in New York.

Without Lopez-Espindola and Mothers Against Gangs, Palomo says, "I can't imagine where I would be. I'd be lost."

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