One Tough Mother

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

Another alumna of the center graduated recently from Project Challenge, a state-funded boot camp for kids in trouble. When asked to select a mentor to help him on his road to success, he chose Lopez-Espindola. He's clean-cut, doing well and planning to attend college after he joins the service, she says.

Other former gangbangers give testimonials at celebrations like the September anniversary party thrown at the center. Several speakers paid homage to Lopez-Espindola for helping change their lives and to the center for providing a safe place for them and others.

The center does more than provide security and lectures on the perils of gangbanging.

Eight-year-old Erik Stewart, a five-year veteran of the center, takes a hands-on approach to creating artwork.
Paolo Vescia
Eight-year-old Erik Stewart, a five-year veteran of the center, takes a hands-on approach to creating artwork.

Families can come to the center for almost any type of help. They can get assistance planning and paying for funerals. They can find out how to tell if children are in gangs or hate groups and what to do if they are. Information is available on careers, health and safety. Caseworkers refer them to proper agencies.

Probation officers have regular hours there. And Mothers Against Gangs feeds needy visitors, ordering pizza daily for the children who often stay until dinnertime, offering free food at special events, serving leftovers later to families in the neighborhood.

Students who have been suspended or expelled from school come by the center, spending days there working on schoolwork, getting tutored or performing office work rather than languishing at home or on the streets.

Mothers Against Gangs also works with Call-A-Teen, the charter school at 649 North Sixth Avenue. Lopez-Espindola, who has sent her own children there, says at-risk kids can get a second chance there without being labeled or judged.

Principal Gloria Junkersfeld says the school accepts the types of students other schools have kicked out or given up on, tailoring coursework and schedules to help them succeed. The half-day curriculum, six-week courses and open enrollment policies make the school a perfect place for the dropouts and troubled youngsters whom Lopez-Espindola encounters.

Other districts and schools also cooperate with the center. Rick Cohen, who directs a program at Loma Linda Elementary School called Students With Authority to Teach, says he and Lopez-Espindola have a tag-team approach to helping kids. His program for students in grades four through eight aims to teach children problem-solving skills as they encounter violence, drugs and gangs in their area. Those children then reach out to other kids, he says, much in the same way the volunteers at Mothers Against Gangs help their peers.

The younger children who visit the Thomas Street center don't wax philosophical against gangs and violence when asked why they come there. They just say it's fun, then talk about eating pizza, playing games and working on computers. Some of them say they come every day after school for help on their homework. Many of them say their parents aren't home anyway. And while they are swinging and playing and hanging out, they seem to be getting the message to stay away from gangs.

Erik Stewart, 8, who has been coming to the center since he was 3, says even though he recently moved to South Phoenix, his mom drives him to his old school so he can continue going to Mothers Against Gangs. He says he knows some kids in gangs but he plans to stay away "'cause you can get into trouble and my mom could take away my allowance."

Another 8-year-old boy playing Nintendo one afternoon says he wants to become a police officer. He says he has older brothers and a sister who don't come to the center. And he doesn't really try to pass on what he's learned about staying out of trouble.

"No, they like gangs," he says.

Michael Mora, 10, has turned his life around at an early age. His mother says she began to get worried when she noticed Michael dressing and talking like a gangster, drawing pictures of low-rider cars and practicing Old English graffiti-style lettering. He would brag to his elementary school friends that his cousins were in gangs. Then two years ago, when Michael was in third grade, he colored a leprechaun for a class assignment. Elena Mora was horrified when he brought it home.

"He had drawn eight-balls for buttons on the shirt, Nike symbols on his shoes, a gun in one hand and a knife in the other," she says.

When she went to the principal, he advised her not to worry. But Mora decided to take action. She enrolled Michael in a charter school, left her full-time job for part-time paralegal work and contacted Lopez-Espindola.

Now Michael and his mom both volunteer for Mothers Against Gangs. Each weekday, Mora gets off work, picks up Michael at school and heads for the center. Michael, dressed neatly in his school uniform, a navy golf shirt and khaki shorts, always stops in at Lopez-Espindola's office for a bear hug. His mom says he is interested in sports for the first time and has quit mimicking and admiring gang members.

"I've seen a total change," says Elena Mora.

Michael, a red and yellow sucker in his mouth, says he used to see drugs and gang activity at his old school. "That needs to stop," he says.

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