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Spirit of Giving Sweeps Pico Neighborhood

By Phil Wayne
Staff Writer

December 23 -- The first annual Pico Neighborhood Holiday Basket Drive is giving Alejandro Rodriguez and other youth from the city’s poorest community not only the joy of helping others, but a chance to learn valuable lessons in leadership and organization.

“I came here because I want to give back to the community,” said the 16-year-old Pico resident, when asked what brought him to the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) this week. And give back, he does.

The basket drive -- a joint effort of the center, the Olympic High School Student Council and Santa Monica College’s Associated Students -- will provide more than 30 families with colorful gift baskets, each loaded with an assortment of household utensils, food and toys, some of which were provided by Toys for Tots.

PYFC participant Chris Powell and family with PYFC youth and staff celebrating the spirit of the holidays in the Pico Neighborhood.

Lourdes Rodriguez and members of the Olympic High Student Council came up with the idea and approached the center’s director, Oscar de la Torre, who enthusiastically agreed to help organize the basket drive. The center contributed money, solicited donations and is serving as the hub of operations.

The basket drive helps teach teens “the value of organizing efforts to help the community” and the importance of giving, said de la Torre, a School Board member, who plans to make the basket drive an annual event.

Manny Soto, PYFC participant, organizing gift baskets.

Youth from Olympic High, SMC and PYFC were active in not only preparing the baskets but also in fundraising.

“The older youth that come to the center have been an integral part of making this whole thing come together,” de la Torre said.

“The Pico Neighborhood gets a bad rap,” he said, and its young people “depicted in a negative way, whether it’s gangs or whatever.” De la Torre sees this as a “story of transformation, of youth doing something positive.”

Megan Landis, who will celebrate her 18th birthday just three days after Christmas, has been inspired by her experience at the center, including the gift basket program.

Megan Landis

An intern from Samohi, Landis has been active at the center for two years, coming for the “family feeling” and a positive learning environment.

Rodriguez, who has been coming to the center for three years, likes to work on the computers and take advantage of the tutors who help him with his studies. His passions include research on the Internet, history and math.

“People don’t just come here to kick it,” he said. “People are actually trying to work.”

Rodriguez has not only learned leadership skills, but also how helping those who are less fortunate can strengthen a community, he said.

“People are not very privileged in my neighborhood and I want to help them,” he said.

Three days before Christmas, the center was bustling with youth taking advantage of the services, which include access to computers with DSL connections, counseling, job placement, training in an onsite recording studio and, of course, the lessons and skills learned through participation in an event like the basket drive.

In the drive, “The number one thing we are looking at is children, families with children,” said de la Torre, as Barbara Alarcon and her daughter Jennifer selected their basket from the dozens laid out before them.

Describing themselves as “very thankful,” Alarcon said the holiday basket was a great “surprise.”

Seeing the gratitude on the faces of the families is part of the reward for youth at SYFC who participated in preparing the baskets.

Families with children at Olympic High School as well as the families of youth active at SYFC were first on the list to receive the holiday baskets.

“We are trying to target families with children and who are really in need of support,” says de la Torre. In the event that there are any baskets remaining, they will be given away on a first-come, first-serve basis.

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