The swing set was too wet to play on.
The roads were too slippery to ride scooters.
While Anahel Diaz’s mother is at work, the Beach Flats Community Center (BFCC) serves as a second home for her daughter.
Eleven-year-old Diaz is just one of many children who make use of the programs offered at the BFCC.
“The tutors are nice, and they always help me with my homework, so I get A’s,” Diaz said. “I like Fridays because we do arts and crafts.”
Anahel represents one of the many children living in the Beach Flats, located just minutes away from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on Leibrandt Avenue. Thirty-nine percent of Beach Flats residents live below the poverty line, where the median household income is just below $20,000 and 44 percent of the adults over the age of 25 have below a ninth-grade education.
The neighborhood is eight blocks in diameter, with the BFCC at its heart. While families view the center as an asset to the community, the funding for it has become a heated issue recently due to the city’s budget deficit.
Last year on Dec. 4, the Santa Cruz City Council voted to defund the BFCC and many other local organizations and programs including the Surf Museum, Harvey West Pool and the Museum of Natural History. The ramifications of that City Council decision have been widespread, severely affecting those who live in the Beach Flats community,
“We exist to support [the] families that are more vulnerable in Santa Cruz,” said Reyna Ruiz, BFCC community liaison and program director.
Vice Mayor Mike Rotkin validated the vitality and worth of the BFCC, but said that due to economic woes, cuts to funding for many iconic Santa Cruz structures had to be made.
“Nobody can be happy about the budget cuts,” Rotkin said. “We closed down all kinds of programs, some of which have been around for 80 years. All seven members [of the council] were deeply upset.”
Rotkin expressed gratitude toward private donors who were responsible for the preservation of various facilities.
“We are very fortunate that in every case someone stepped forward to rescue these different organizations,” Rotkin said.
Ruiza graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in American studies and has been working with the BFCC for eight years. As one of two part-time employees, she hopes the center will continue to run thanks to private donations.
“There is no question about the vital role of the community center in the Beach Flats,” Ruiz said. “In the context of the economy, the question is, ‘Can the community center function as an independent organization?’”
The defunding by the Santa Cruz City Council forced the BFCC to cling to whatever scraps of hope they had for the future. That hope came largely from the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center, which currently provides the center with administrative support for fundraising purposes, such as the writing of grants.
Ruiz said that most of the donations taken in by the center come from private donors. Recently, the foundation received an anonymous check for $15,000, Ruiz said. Currently, the BFCC is bringing in partners to help it establish long-term goals on how to remain open for the public.
Lidia Montesino, the other part-time employee, was raised in the Beach Flats in the 1980s. She began working for the BFCC in high school in order to satisfy a volunteering requirement. Eleven years later, she’s still around.
“I used to avoid telling people where I lived,” said Montesino, explaining that the Beach Flats were widely known as a hub for prostitution and drugs in the 1980s.
“Now I am proud to say I live in the beautiful place that I think is the best neighborhood in Santa Cruz,” Montesino said.
Ruiz noted that the residents of the Beach Flats area make up an integral part of Santa Cruz, working in the service industry, at restaurants and at the Boardwalk.
“They are part of the fabric of Santa Cruz,” Ruiz said.
The BFCC aims to empower youth through Kids Club programs offered Monday through Friday, thanks to local nonprofit organization Barrios Unidos. Kids Club and Barrios Unidos aim to instill in Beach Flats youth the idea that there are positive, long-term alternatives to gang-related activities in the community.
Jesus Jaime-Diaz is one of the many volunteers interning with Barrios Unidos. As a senior at Oregon State University majoring in ethnic studies and speech communication, he reflected upon his work with Kids Club as his nine-week internship came to a close.
“Kids Club serves as a prevention strategy for Barrios Unidos,” Jaime-Diaz said. “The Beach Flats Community Center derails a sense of belonging in gangs, and rather promotes love and culture.”
Jaime-Diaz worked with kids aged 5 to 14 who endured economic hardship daily. He recalled the most touching moment during his internship, when the BFCC put on a quinceañera, a traditional coming-of-age party for 15-year-old Latinas, for a young woman whose family was enduring hard economic times, he said.
“If Kids Club didn’t exist, it would diminish a vital tool in healing the community,” Jaime-Diaz said. “We are a systematic tool in preventing violence.”
Irma Nunez, a coordinator of the many cooking projects, art projects, movie nights and field trips organized for the youth involved in Kids Club, worries about the future funding of the BFCC as well.
“I felt so sad when I heard they are going to close the community center,” Nunez said. “I see the parents are very worried. Here, we are like a family. I just thought, ‘What are they going to do?’”
Elizabeth Diaz, a mother of two children who has lived in the Beach Flats for four years, is among those worried parents. She is overwhelmingly thankful for the community center, but also expressed worries for her younger son, whom she hopes will receive the same help her daughter has been receiving regardless of budget issues.
“I speak very little English, so she comes here, to the community center, for support to get help for homework,” Diaz said. “This is a place where children are able to keep their mind off the streets and focus on homework. I hope this program continues, because I would like my younger child to participate.”
Zach Friend, spokesman for the Santa Cruz Police Department, has developed a close relationship with the Beach Flats community while providing it with informational community meetings — many of which are held in Spanish.
“Any time there are additional outlets for teens and kids to get involved with sports and cultural activities,” Friend said, “it makes a difference with crime.”
During the fall quarter of 2008, the College Ten organization Explore New Growth and Gain Experience (ENGAGE) put on a Turkeylicious Fundraiser, in which profits went toward providing residents of the Beach Flats with food for Thanksgiving.
The student members of ENGAGE raised over $800 in a two-month period by tabling in the Quarry Plaza and in front of the College Nine/Ten Dining Hall. This money was enough to provide 10 families in the Beach Flats with full Thanksgiving dinners, from the turkey to the pumpkin pie.
“We wanted to keep the project in the community,” said ENGAGE coordinator and third-year College Ten politics major Alex Fischl. “And the Beach Flats is more needing than the rest of the community. They have a lot of hardworking families that aren’t able to purchase in excess.”
These types of cocurricular programs are closely intertwined with College Ten’s theme, “Social Justice and Community,” and have widely and positively impacted the Beach Flats.
“A community center is vital for a place like the Beach Flats,” Fischl said. “Having a community center gives a sense of identity and provides an outlet to keep the youth doing positive things. They provide education and a place for the youth to go when they get out of school.”
Jose Reyes-Olivas, ENGAGE staff adviser, hopes the city’s budget cuts will not be too detrimental to the community center.
“It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone,” Reyes-Olivas said. “The community center loses an agency that provides vital support. Given the reality of the challenges, it doesn’t bode well for the community to not provide basic services to the community.”