Centro ceremony marks determination

Volunteers and fund-raisers see the Riverside program's pint-size scholars through a lean season.

RIVERSIDE—Jazmin Rivera threw a big smile her parents’ way as she struggled to keep the white paper cap and dangling tassel straight on her head.

Paola and Ricardo Ramos sat quietly in a shaded, grassy area as their mother, Gloria Pe na, clapped from a nearby chair.

“We want these kids to be (the future) doctors, teachers and lawyers,” said community advocate Gilberto Chavez as he stood in front of the small group of mostly Eastside parents and children outside the Centro de Aztlan Youth and Community Center.

Jazmin, Paola, Ricardo and 15 other smiling children graduated Friday evening from the Escuelita de Aztlan, a bilingual preschool program for children ages 3 through 5 sponsored by the Inland Empire Concilio de la Raza.

About 20 children were enrolled in the program this summer, its second year. With help from volunteer teachers and parents, the school pulled through a turbulent financial period and survived almost four months without funding.

“It’s been 110 days of economic drought,” said Chavez, executive director of the Centro. “It’s been a miracle that we’ve even been able to open the door. “

Chavez said he hopes to continue with the program and to begin a new session in about a week. That is, if a long-awaited $ 40,000 federal grant arrives on time.

“Last year, we didn’t see any federal money till December. “

The Concilio, which provides tutoring, mentoring and recreational activities for the Eastside’s youth, will use part of the money to fund the school, Chavez said.

Carwashes and other fund-raisers have gotten them through this summer, but unsuccessful attempts to get emergency funding from the larger community have left coordinators at the Centro angry and frustrated, Chavez said.

Outsiders do not understand how effective such community-based programs can be, he said.

Low-income parents don’t have money to place their children in day-care centers where they can prepare for kindergarten, teacher Alejandra Blas said.

And if they don’t learn how to behave in a classroom at an early age, they will have problems down the road, she added.

At the Escuelita, the children learned the alphabet, to count to 20 and to sing in English and Spanish. They also learned about their Mexican and indigenous roots, Chavez said.

“We have strived to give them their culture and history back,” he said.

Donna Kunz, administrative manager for the city’s development department, said the federal government authorized the city to finalize contracts with public service groups last week. The $ 519,500 in community development block grants should soon be allocated to 35 public service groups in Riverside, she said.

The Concilio is in dire straits, Kunz said, and she has asked her staff to give priority to the Concilio when processing the paperwork.

Gina Morales said she hopes the school will continue. By interacting with other children at the school, her 31/2-year-old daughter, Ashley, is once again fluent in Spanish, she said.

Ashley, an only child, had started to lose the language from lack of practice, Morales said.

“She’s actually really disappointed that (school) is over,” Morales said.

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