One Tough Mother

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

And without Palomo, the organization might not be where it is today.

Palomo began helping Lopez-Espindola with grant proposals. "I type faster than Sophia does, so I just started helping her fill out the forms. And I would edit them while I did it."

Where other paid grant writers failed to secure funding for Mothers Against Gangs, Palomo succeeded. She says because she had been through the center's programs, she was better able to explain them on the applications. And, she says, officials were impressed with her own story when she made personal presentations at corporations and elsewhere.

Gang members say they can relate to group leader Frank Garcia's message.
Paolo Vescia
Gang members say they can relate to group leader Frank Garcia's message.
Elsa Torres tells a youth group how much she misses her imprisoned uncle.
Paolo Vescia
Elsa Torres tells a youth group how much she misses her imprisoned uncle.

Palomo's work produced more than $400,000 in grants, including awards from Save the Children, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Community Development Block Grant program, the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Gannett Corp and Value Options.

The organization doesn't have studies or statistics to demonstrate its success. It says it has served more than 45,000 kids over the past five years, most of them male and Hispanic. But the group has no way of proving how many kids it has kept out of gangs or how many lives it has turned around.

Still, Lopez-Espindola can tell many tales of troubled kids who have turned successful. And real-life examples of reformed lives can be found merely by visiting the center.

Jose Oromi of Save the Children puts it this way: "They are saving lives."

It's easy to drive by the Mothers Against Gangs center without noticing it. At 1401 East Thomas, just down the street from the Phoenix Country Club and North High School, the converted fire station sits on a corner where traffic whizzes by.

The little building is a monument to the type of work that goes on there. Bright, colorful murals depicting a mother and child, kids holding hands and lots of flowers adorn the outside walls. A blob of paint on what used to be the fire station's garage door masks some graffiti. Outside the front door, large copies of "The Golden Rules" are posted in Spanish and English. They dictate peaceful, respectful behavior, outlaw gang colors, drugs, tobacco and alcohol and declare the center "a neutral zone."

Throughout the facility, on the outdoor playgrounds and the indoor recreation room, on the computers, in the kitchen, sitting on worn-out chairs and behind desks, are kids. From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., they stream in and out. Little ones, some of whom have been going there since they were toddlers, paint pictures, play Nintendo on a prehistoric-looking video-game monitor, work on their homework with older kids. Adolescents and teenagers play pool or foosball, listen to music, hang out with the younger ones and help clean up. Others answer phones, compose letters on computers and send faxes announcing upcoming events.

Most of the center's employees and many of its volunteers are young people who used to be in trouble, came to the center for help and stayed around to help others. One North High student, Dustin Kornelussen, 16, started coming by just for something to do after school. He says he's never been in trouble, but his work at the center may help keep him out. He has signed on as a volunteer, playing with the younger visitors, helping them with their homework.

Lopez-Espindola says kids are the ones who really run the place now. They have painted the walls inside and out, drawn the artwork and laid the carpet and tile. They help in case management, event planning, grant writing. And they lead support groups for kids in gangs.

The weekly gatherings, kind of a cross between peer therapy and support groups, were the idea of Rudy Lopez, Edward's younger brother. Rudy, who was involved in gangs back when Edward was killed, according to his mother, proposed that in addition to the grieving support group for parents, she start a similar group for kids.

Over the years, more structured sessions have developed, with a broader range of discussion topics. Initially led by Rudy, and later by other young volunteers, the evening groups consist of 12- or 20-week sessions with a curriculum that covers topics ranging from self-esteem to grief to domestic violence and sexual behavior. Lopez-Espindola and police officers sometimes sit in.

The courts and other institutions have put the Mothers Against Gangs program to work for them, too. The sessions are sometimes required as community-service hours, either as a condition of probation or to help earn free tattoo removal from the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.

Kids meet for hourly sessions once or twice a week and must first watch a video depicting the death of Edward Lopez and the birth of Mothers Against Gangs.

In October, Save the Children commissioned a study of the youth program -- the only evaluation ever done of a Mothers Against Gangs program. The review looked at only a small group of kids in one of the 20-week sessions. But it suggested that the youth groups were helping the kids because 90 percent of the young people had learned, among other things, how to better control their anger and to consider consequences of their actions.

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