One Tough Mother

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

Later, he apologizes. "I shouldn't have spoken with a sucker in my mouth. That was rude."

Mothers Against Gangs has had its ups and downs. Heartened initially by support from mothers and others in the community, Lopez-Espindola says she has been disappointed by many people. Charley Ruiz, a member of the state's G.I.T.E.M. anti-gang task force who has supported Mothers Against Gangs since its inception, credits Lopez-Espindola with remaining true to her goal, despite some problems, political turmoil and troubled alliances.
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.

Trained as a cosmetologist, Lopez-Espindola has had to teach herself practically everything about running a nonprofit organization. She says some board members and others didn't follow through on their commitment to the organization. One former board member that she considered a mentor mishandled finances at another nonprofit group. Another volunteer took grant-writing materials to get an education grant for herself.

There have been break-ins, thefts from the center, bullets fired into her office. Neighbors have blamed kids from the center for graffiti and other problems.

But Lopez-Espindola has continued her mission. She has been called a national hero and been honored many times for her work, including a 1995 President's Service Award and a 1998 Ameritech Award of Excellence presented at a National Crime Prevention Council conference.

Her organization has been featured on several national television programs and was spotlighted in a 1997 show called America's Promise as one of five organizations across the country that are making a difference with at-risk youth.

Over the years, she has forged alliances with the Phoenix Police Department, the Department of Public Safety, the Latino Peace Officers Association, neighborhood groups and city officials. She has been supported by businesses including Motorola, Honeywell, Arizona Public Service Company and Bashas'. And the city provided a huge boost in 1993 when it let the organization take over the abandoned fire station on Thomas Road, charging $1 a year rent.

"The people that I've come across at the center, I'm really impressed with their own sense of purpose and their own initiative to get involved," says Rick Cohen of Loma Linda Elementary School. "Sophia has been an inspiration for me. She has empowered kids to make their own decisions and get involved in their own way. You can have a strong leader and make them follow you. But you are just a figurehead. And when you take that figurehead away, you've got nothing."

Lopez-Espindola does not have the admiration of everyone. She has angered representatives of local boxer Michael Carbajal, who she says is no hero. Despite his denials of gang affiliation, she refused years ago to hang a promotional poster in her center. "We're supposed to be anti-gangs," she says.

Carbajal, convicted in 1995 of shooting a gun outside a Tempe house police said was a gang hangout, was ordered to perform community service at anti-gang agencies like Mothers Against Gangs. Carbajal and his lawyer apparently took exception to Lopez-Espindola's comments in a newspaper that he would be scrubbing the toilets along with everyone else. He never showed up, and served most of his hours on the Fort McDowell Indian reservation.

Lopez-Espindola also has been involved in public disputes with county supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her supporters, largely over whether minorities are receiving fair treatment at the hands of Phoenix police. Lopez-Espindola has called Wilcox and others "so-called leaders" who are too quick to cry racism rather than support law enforcement and recognize that minority youths are getting into trouble.

Lopez-Espindola also alleges the Wilcox camp was behind her election-fraud troubles. During an aborted 1996 attempt to run for Maryvale Justice of the Peace, Lopez-Espindola was charged with falsifying election registration documents submitted with her nominating petitions. She was accused of contacting signers after their voter registration was challenged in court, making them sign new registration forms, then back-dating them to make it appear as if they were submitted when they first signed her petitions.

Lopez-Espindola believes the whole case was politically motivated by Wilcox's supporters and says she was following the advice of an election official related to Wilcox. That official has denied telling Lopez-Espindola to do anything improper.

She eventually pleaded guilty to three charges; the remaining 30 counts were dismissed. She was placed on a year's probation and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service. Her probation was terminated early in August 1998 and her offenses were reclassified as misdemeanors.

Wilcox did not return phone calls for this story.

Publicity and ridicule that resulted from her criminal case hurt her, Lopez-Espindola says, but she was buoyed by support from the kids at the center and other longtime backers, including Gerald Richard, the police official who initially told her about the Mothers Against Gangs group in Chicago, and councilman Doug Lingner.

"I told people this has nothing to do with the center, it isn't Mothers Against Gangs' business, it's Sophia business," Lopez-Espindola says.

These days, Lopez-Espindola is optimistic. At age 40, she is remarried to a former police officer and hopes to work on her college degree. Her five children, ages 14 to 23, are on straight paths. And Mothers Against Gangs is facing a brighter future.

Save the Children sought her out to participate in a $20 million, three-year national program aimed at preventing kids from getting into trouble during hours they are unsupervised. The organization is creating what it calls a Web of Support that involves programs in 100 neighborhoods across the country. Save the Children says research and experience shows three critical elements are needed in any program for at-risk kids: caring adults, safe places and constructive activities.

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