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John Valenzuela Youth Center

If you've been paying attention the past two years, you know that the John Valenzuela Youth Center has increasingly served as an important community gathering place for our firestorms of late—Mexican-American Studies organizing, Chicana feminist community-building and, more recently, as a force for helping South Tucson parents and teachers organize to prevent Tucson Unified School District schools from closing.

Executive director Gloria Hamelitz-Lopez says everything the center is involved in is youth-focused. That was also the goal of the center when it was founded in 1939 by the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic, also known as the "white sisters," the order that opened the Pio Decimo Center. The idea was to focus on keeping kids active and therefore out of trouble. In the 1980s, the city of South Tucson got involved and helped the center offer recreation classes.

For the first 50 or so years, the center never had a permanent home, but that changed after a tragic incident in 1993, when Tucson Police Department officer John Valenzuela was fatally shot while serving an arrest warrant. According to Hamelitz-Lopez, Valenzuela, who served as a school resource officer for Ochoa and Mission elementary schools, was scheduled to give a speech at a graduation ceremony for fifth-graders.

"He was religious, lived with his parents, and spent a lot of his own money helping kids from South Tucson. He died with $29 in his bank account," she says.

His father found a copy of the speech, in which Valenzuela talked about his desire for kids in South Tucson to have a safe place go. That spurred the community to raise the money needed to buy a permanent home for the center. When it opened in 1994 at 1550 S. Sixth Ave., it was named in his honor.

"That spirit of how we were formed informs what we do. The center is a tribute to his office, and even more so, a tribute to the parents in this community," Hamelitz-Lopez says.

The center continues its focus on after-school programs for youth of all ages, and is an active after-school feeder program for Ochoa students. Programs are also offered all summer for kids in the surrounding neighborhoods, and the center is always available for community meetings.

"What happens here is not based on my personal beliefs, but what is needed and what the community wants—we're community-driven as opposed to driven by me," she says.

Hamelitz-Lopez says that hosting meetings about TUSD's embattled Mexican-American Studies, or MAS, program was spurred by students who'd taken MAS classes, and supporting TUSD neighborhood schools, where many center youth come from, is a no-brainer.

"Our support was generated from our kids—our kids who came in upset, our kids who saw the books being taken out of their classrooms—who asked to borrow microphones, use our spaces because their MEChA meetings were being monitored. They knew this was their safe haven and we loved every minute of it," she says.

"In great times and even in bad times this has been a place for the fight and eventually the healing part," she added, referring to the Chicana and queer feminist group and blog MalintZINE.

The center receives funding from the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, the city of South Tucson, and from donations. More than half the staff are former participants in center programs and residents of South Tucson. She says kids from the area trust people who have lived in the area, so peer leadership is stressed in programs and classes.

"What I've learned and what the community knows is that if an agency says it can fix all the problems, they are lying to you," she says. "It takes a village to raise a child."

— Mari Herreras, mherreras@tucsonweekly.com

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