By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
At a recent meeting, 8-year-old Elsa Torres stands in the middle of the circle to tell the group about her uncle, who she says is in prison for killing someone to protect himself.
"He has seven years to go . . . and he's gonna come straight to my house when he gets out. He calls me every day, even though he has a short time to call," she says. "And I can't wait until he gets out, because I miss him."
Frank Garcia is a former gang member who now works for Mothers Against Gangs. He tells the group members, most of them slumping in their chairs, that he envies them because they have a chance to avoid the same gang life he chose.
"You should get a job, get a house, get a family, be happy," he says.
Before the next group session the following week, Jose Beltran says he was struck by Garcia's messages.
"He knows what's up, he knows what he's saying," says Beltran, who is on house arrest and must come to the center to perform more than 200 hours of community service.
A skinny 16-year-old who wears an electronic monitoring bracelet on his right ankle and a woeful expression on his face, Beltran has been to Mothers Against Gangs before. Two years ago, he was picked up for a weapons violation and was ordered to serve 200 hours at the center. He didn't go through the youth program then, because he couldn't fit it in with his work schedule.
Lopez-Espindola says Beltran and his cousins came to the center together then and made progress. But once they were back home and on the streets, she says, they began to get into trouble again.
Beltran's latest arrest came when a group of kids started shooting at him and some girls in a car. He says he drove home, got his gun, returned and fired back. Now he is allowed to go only to work or to the Mothers Against Gangs center. If his monitor goes off once, he'll face a stiff penalty when he appears for sentencing next month, either being held in custody until he's 18 or transferred to adult court.
He tells the group he wants to change his ways. "But it's not as easy as that. I'm trying to stay out of trouble, [but] I'm not going to just be kicking back when people keep messing with me. They keep messing with me."
Beltran says his enemies keep taunting him. They even broke his car window recently and he was powerless to retaliate. "I can't even go out of my yard," he says.
When he describes the crime that got him back into trouble, Garcia stops him when he talks about going home to retrieve his weapon. That, he says, is where Beltran could have avoided arrest. He should have stayed away.
The bright light in his life, Beltran says, is the daughter he fathered when he was 14. Having her has made him want to "start calming down," he says, because he doesn't want her to get hurt or grow up without knowing her father. And while Beltran's own mother has told him to consider moving to get away from the gangs, he wants to stay and watch his daughter grow up.
"She's just starting to say, 'Daddy,'" he says. But he says her mother won't let him see the child, a situation he's trying to change.
This is something else Frank Garcia can relate to. He tells Beltran he has a son from a prior relationship, but the mother won't let him see the boy because of his gangster past.
"It hurts, it hurts deeply inside," he says.
"Mejor [better] to beat you up a whole bunch of times," the teenager replies.
All of the teenagers in this group are here because they have committed crimes. Some of them are involved in gangs, others aren't. They say kids join gangs because they want to feel protected and be popular. When asked to define a gang, one boy says it's people trying to protect a neighborhood, another says it's a group trying to be better than anyone else. Beltran says a gang is a group of guys that hang out. As to what a victim is, a 15-year-old offender offers: "A person that gets hurt that wasn't supposed to."
George Acedo, a 17-year-old dropout, is at the center performing 60 hours of service after a burglary arrest. He says that staying in a gang will land you in "a tomb, a hospital or jail." He has asked Garcia how he can remove the gang symbols from his remote-controlled race car.
Frank Garcia tells the teenagers that if he can get out of the gang life, they can, too. "I walked away and I feel proud that I walked away. You know why? Because I'm not getting locked up. I'm not killing anybody. I'm not getting killed. . . . I know how you feel. I don't go out. I don't go to clubs. I don't want to get shot at. I know it's hard out there because I've been there."
He is 27 years old, with a baby face. When he comes to work at Mothers Against Gangs, he is clean-cut, neatly dressed. Even his white tee shirts are pressed. He welcomes visitors (no matter how many times he has met them) with a firm handshake, a huge smile and a warm greeting.
But he says, not long ago, "you wouldn't have liked me." He was a banger who looked and acted the part. A member of Las Cuatro Milpas -- one of the oldest gangs in Phoenix -- since he was 11 or 12, Garcia fulfilled all his obligations to the gang. He used and dealt drugs. He has arrests for robbery, burglary, vehicle theft and other minor incidents on his juvenile record. When he and some buddies broke into a Montgomery Ward and stole $4,000 worth of equipment, Garcia was sent to adult court where he squandered a break by violating his probation. When he was 19, he made the news after he and a teenager got into a dispute with a stranger at a gas station, then chased him through the streets of Phoenix in their car, firing shots at him.
Garcia says it wasn't until well after he had served about a year and a half in jail and prison that he decided to quit the gangster life. And when he did, he just severed his ties. He didn't move out of his old neighborhood, but he quit seeing his friends, didn't answer their phone calls, didn't invite them to his wedding this year.
He says this really wasn't as hard as it sounds, because a lot of his old friends are dead or in prison. While his wife is worried that others may seek him out and retaliate for leaving the gang, Garcia says he's not afraid.
"I ain't scared of nobody because I'm my own man. I'm gonna live my own life, without people telling me what to do and who to hang out with," he says.
When he got out of prison, he found it hard to get jobs with a felony on his record. Once, when he withheld that information on his application, he got hired for a warehouse position. He claims he was doing well until he was called into a supervisor's office and let go because of his deception.
"My heart just dropped," he says. "I went home and cried my heart out. It was like I was trying and I couldn't get anywhere."
He had gotten another job at the Bashas' distribution center, but hadn't started working there, when he began volunteering at Mothers Against Gangs a few months ago. When Lopez-Espindola realized his work schedule would cut into time with kids, she offered him a paid position.
Garcia says he is grateful that older gang members he met in prison advised him to quit the life before he ended up spending the rest of his days behind bars. He says he regrets all the pain he has caused his family, but he is thankful to his mother for encouraging him when he was in trouble and paying for a good lawyer to represent him.
"My mom's real proud of me now. She's just telling me to do what makes me happy. And this makes me happy," he says.
He takes a yellow sticky note and draws a line from right to left. As he dips the line down in the middle, Garcia says that was the trap of the gang life for him. He draws another parallel line, this one with an upward arc in the middle.
"I want to show kids there is a way around gangs, a detour around what I did," he says.
"We have so much respect from the gangs because they know we are not against them," she says. "We are against the crimes they are committing. We don't see them as gang members. We see them as kids. And we will do anything we can to help them. But once they cross the line, we'll prosecute them to the fullest."
Lopez-Espindola believes that when it comes to gang involvement, both prevention and intervention can be effective. She thinks prevention techniques should start as early as kindergarten, because children in troubled families are exposed to drugs and violence at young ages. She cites an example of a 4-year-old boy who used to sit on the roof of a nearby apartment complex, acting as a lookout for his drug-addicted mother. By the time he moved away, she says, he was flashing gang signs. While some say intervention is nearly impossible -- once a gangster, always a gangster -- Lopez-Espindola disagrees.
"It's never too late," she says. She constantly preaches the value of self-worth, advising adults and children alike to look at their mistakes as lessons from which they can learn and move on.
Lopez-Espindola has snapshots and school pictures from kids who have been through the center, have stayed out of trouble and have kept in touch. One third-grader was referred to the center from a school principal after he stabbed a kindergartner. He's now in high school and is doing well, Lopez-Espindola reports.
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.
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.
Later, he apologizes. "I shouldn't have spoken with a sucker in my mouth. That was rude."
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.
Jose Oromi, who directs the urban part of the project, says Lopez-Espindola's group is providing the three necessary elements for success. But Save the Children believes the center can use money and advice to become even more effective.
He says Save the Children has spent $100,000 at the Glendale Youth Center, where Mothers Against Gangs was brought in to start youth groups. At the Phoenix center, Save the Children has contributed another $100,000 in cash, training and in-kind services; more than $44,000 has been pledged for next year.
Oromi says exchanging ideas among the Web of Support sites is a key component to the program. One organization from Bridgeport, Connecticut, has visited Phoenix to study Mothers Against Gangs' methods. And lessons learned from the Phoenix organization are being shared internationally, with Latin American countries that are facing similar gang issues, he says.
Armando Flores, executive vice president of APS, is also helping to restructure and strengthen Mothers Against Gangs. Earlier this year, he and others helped the group change its board membership to include fewer well-meaning but inexperienced mothers and more business-savvy community representatives.
He says successful citizens need to do their part to address the problem of gangs. "It's easy to go into your gated community and not worry about it. But if we turn our backs on it as if it's not our problem, we're kidding ourselves," Flores says.
Lopez-Espindola marvels at how far her organization has come since 1992.
"I feel that I've made a difference," she says. "This is a lot more than I imagined. All I wanted was a little group for mothers to talk about what they had gone through."
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