The youth center steers children away from gangs with their college-ready programs that emphasize STEM fields. It recently received vital funds to install bullet-resistant glass and Kevlar into the walls of the building to protect the children from stray bullets.
By Jason Lewis
The Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center is an essential resource that serves 400 children a year, who are mostly from South Los Angeles and Inglewood. The center gives them an alternative to gang life by steering them to college, but gang activity around the center has caused major safety problems.
The center’s six store-front buildings, which are on the corner of Western Avenue and 91st Street, has been struck by stray bullets, prompting Executive Director Naomi McSwain to have bullet-resistant glass and Kevlar installed into the walls.
“We’re fortifying this building for COVID safety, and we also need to fortify it because of bullets,” she said. “We just cannot come back here knowing that there’s a gang war going on in our area, and it’s heightened by COVID. We just didn’t want to wait until somebody was finally hit.”
The center received an $8,000 donation from KROQ-FM to go along with their own funds to add the bullet-resistant material to three of its buildings, and an additional $23,500 came to it as a surprise gift to add the material to its other three buildings.
Community Build, Inc. was scheduled to receive a $10,000 donation from Rebuilding Together Of the City of Angeles, but Community Build, Inc. CEO Robert Sausedo asked Rebuilding Together to instead donate the funds to the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center. Rebuilding Together donated $13,500 to the project, and Ron Gold, a Rebuilding Together board member, made an additional $10,000 donation from D and E Trust.
The Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center was created after Al Wooten Jr. was shot and killed in 1989. The need for the center rose out of the closures of many government supported youth centers that happened during the height of the gang and crack epidemic in Los Angeles. Initially the center simply gave local children a place to go after school, but over the years it evolved into something much more impactful.
“We started off with homework and basketball,” McSwain said. “We brought board games in, and we’d take the kids down the street to the bowling alley. That was pretty much everything we did. Now we’re doing college and career prep, STEM classes, robotics and SAT prep.”
The center now focuses on sending children to college, and since it started tracking its students seven years ago, 100 percent of its daily participants went on to college before the COVID-19 pandemic. Many children started going to the center without having college on their radar, but that quickly changed.
“Some kids may not want to go to college,” McSwain said. “And I’m always asked that question by kids, ‘Well what if I don’t want to go to college?’ And I say, ‘Well if you change your mind, you’ll be ready.’ And I have seen them change their minds after we take them on college tours and bring in mentors who have different careers. When they find out that they have to go to college to be that, I’ve seen them change their minds.”
The center offers in-person and online tutoring, which is extremely important because many students are falling behind due to school closures and online classes during the pandemic.
“We’re getting parents who are telling us, ‘They told me that my child isn’t going to the next grade, and I need help. He needs to complete these assignments. Can we get help?’ So we’re giving them tutors to help them complete their assignments,” McSwain said.
The center has classes in performing and visual arts, music, world arts and culture, and technology. The STEM program is extremely important because those fields are in high demand.
“We want to make sure that our students get this 21st century education so that they aren’t left behind,” McSwain said. “So they know what coding, robotics, and engineering is.”
Education is a pathway to success and a deterrent to crime.
“Education gives you the type of lifestyle where you don’t have to steal; you don’t have to go to jail; you don’t have to sell drugs,” McSwain said. “Because you have a viable, and hopefully high-paying career. We’re giving our kids an alternative so that they won’t have to engage in things that can get themselves killed or in jail.”
For more information about the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center, visit www.wootencenter.org.