Our group was scheduled to serve at an after-school tutoring program in a Watts neighborhood (in South Central Los Angeles). As we pulled off the highway exit and drove towards our destination, I could tell that our group had just entered an unknown world - filled with gangs, drugs, prostitution. The van got silent and all the students (and adults) just took in the scenery of this wartorn community as I explained how we'd be serving. We were headed to the heart of the chaos - to a church that is swimming against the current. In a community where 30% of all students graduate and 100% are affected by gang violence, they provide tutoring and a safe haven for children and teens.
After an afternoon full of shy "hello"s, timid group members trying to help kids their own age with their homework, and eventually some crazy playtime (with 2 pools and a bounce house!) - the pastor sat our group down to explain their ministry and the challenges they face. The adults and students (actually from the LA area) were able to peer into this world that literally existed in their own backyard.
We returned each afternoon to dozens of smiling faces, ready to learn and play. On our last afternoon there 3 of us group members were sitting with 2 of the boys from the program - trying to help them with their worksheet on counting money. One of the boys (we'll call him "Eddie") turns to us and says (with his million dollar smile) "Who's your friend?" We each ponder the question and say "You are! Why, 'Eddie' - who's yours?" He smiles again and begins to point to different kids in the room "He's my friend...she's my friend....she's my friend...he's my friend...she's my friend...and you...you're my homegirl!" (as he puts his short 6 yr-old arm around one of the girls from our team next to him). It was in that instant that the two worlds became connected, the bridge was built, a relationship was formed and hope was discovered. These kids needed their hard outer shells, but they were just that - kids - on the inside still. They made the statistics we had heard real and the hope of a life changed ever more critical. Our students left not just being more knowledgable about the neighborhood with its pain and hurt, but also knowing that they did and can continue to take a part in giving these kids a future (homeboy "Eddie" included!)
-Sarah, City Host in Los Angeles