Man Stabbed at Bell Gardens Park

July 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A man was stabbed this morning in a Bell Gardens park, authorities said

It happened at 4:05 a.m. at John Anson Ford Park, at Park Lane and Garfield Avenue, Bell Gardens police Sgt. E. Aguirre said.

The victim was stabbed multiple times in the abdomen and right leg, Aguirre said. The suspects were described as two males, he said.

An investigation was underway into details of the stabbing and the hospitalized victim was not cooperative, Aguirre said.

Mayor Aceituno Sworn-In

July 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Mayor Pedro Aceituno (center) and Mayor Pro Tem Jose J. Mendoza took their oath of office Tuesday during a special ceremony at Bell Gardens City Hall. Aceituno replaces Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez as mayor. The swearing-in ceremonies were followed by a performance by Mendoza’s dance team in the City Hall courtyard.

(City of Bell Gardens)

(City of Bell Gardens)

Bell Gardens Youth Discover Hidden Talents

July 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

When 14-year-old Veronica Flores would belt out a song by the now deceased Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera, she secretly hoped that one day she too would perform to large audiences, but believed her dream was probably out of reach.

“I would never sing at school because I thought people would not like that I sang,” the Bell Gardens teen told EGP last week.

That changed when she found Heroes of Dreams, a nonprofit group that teaches 7- to 15-year-olds how to perform on stage.

Through the group, Flores has met other young talented artists who like her love mariachi and ranchera music. Most of them are from Bell Gardens and all are interested in singing, dancing or acting.

Hours of practice each week honing their craft has given Flores and the other participants the confidence they need to succeed.

“My biggest challenge was dance, I just didn’t like it,” said 14-year-old Ashley Romero. “But dancing was just [another] skill very hidden” inside me, she said, beaming with pride.

Bell Gardens Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez, Councilwoman Maria Pulido and award-winning composer Toby Sandoval founded the group last November in response to the growing decline in arts programs available in underprivileged areas.

“We noticed the budget cuts [at schools] and a lot of programs not available in our areas,” explained Rodriguez.

The group meets for a few hours two to three nights a week in the Bell Gardens Veterans Park dance room. They start by stretching their muscles and then do exercises to strengthen their vocal chords. The rest of the evening could involve singing alongside Sandoval’s keyboard or going over choreography and stage presence.

“It’s really an intro to the performing arts, at no cost,” said Rodriguez.

Cost was an important factor for the mother of ten-year-old Mariana Martinez. The young Banda singer travels from South Los Angeles to take part in the group because there are no programs like it in her area.

Young singers with Heroes of Dreams strengthen their vocal cords during a music lesson in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Young singers with Heroes of Dreams strengthen their vocal cords during a music lesson in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“This helps her as a singer and has helped her learn how to dance,” said her mother Teresa Morales in Spanish. “And because it’s free it helps us too.”

The nonprofit’s mission is to mentor underprivileged-youth who have an interest in the entertainment industry.

Since its inception, the group has been dedicated to discovering talented youth who otherwise would not have access to the performing arts.

“In reality, these types of lessons are not in their reach,” said Sandoval, before listing the separate classes each student would have to take including piano, singing and acting to equate the lessons taught at Heroes of Dreams.

In predominately blue-collar community Bell Gardens, the high cost of lessons offered elsewhere often prevents parents from encouraging their children to explore their passion, explains Pulido.

She said parents work hard to pay their bills and usually have to think long and hard about where they will spend any “extra money.”

“Should they spend it on singing or buying clothes for their children,” Pulido told EGP, explaining “That’s why in a city like Bell Gardens we want to keep it free” to attend.

The stars in the making have overcome shyness and stage fright while singing along to Mexican folk songs like “La Bruja” (The Witch) and “La Llorona” (The Weeping Woman).

“I saw many of my shy friends come out of their shells because they didn’t feel judged,” said Andania Barraza, 13, who went from singing behind closed doors to singing and dancing in front of an audience.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

While not all the participants are interested in a career in the entertainment industry, those who are feel that working with a well-known composer like Sandoval is a definite advantage.

Sandoval has worked with Paulina Rubio, Black Eyed Peas, Laura Pausini, Pilar Montenegro, Pedro Fernandez, Banda Macho, Manny D and Sergio Vega, and other celebrities.

“He has connections that maybe we can later connect with,” ventured Alex Escopeda, 14, who dreams of being an actor.

A handful of the participants have already had experience competing for starring roles as part of “Voz Kids,” the Spanish-version of the music competition show “The Voice Kids,” popular in Germany, Holland and Finland, but postponed indefinitely by NBC for broadcast in the U.S.

Half of the Heroes of Dreams members have already gone on auditions for commercials, TV shows and dance teams with several landing gigs on Spanish-language network shows such as “Sabado Gigante” and  “Despierta America.”

The group is like a family, says Rodriguez, pointing out that they leave competition at the door, creating a place of support and inspiration.

“Toby is helping me prepare to sing but hearing Veronica [Flores] and Ashley [Romero] sing makes me want to become a better singer,” notes Rodriguez’ 9-year-old daughter Genesis.

Those who initially felt like outsiders, say they now feel like fit in.

“The first day I didn’t want to meet anyone,” recalls 8-year-old Michael Orozco. “I was nervous, I was by myself, but I made new friends.”

The nonprofit’s goal is to continue to offer free lessons to children while trying to raise the money to pay for a full time studio, costumes, lighting and more instructors. Currently, everyone who works with the children volunteers their time.

“It’s our obligation to make a difference in the lives of these children,” Sandoval told EGP in Spanish. “There isn’t a child here that has not changed since they first stepped in.”

Bell Gardens Man Pleads Not Guilty to Murder Charges

July 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A Bell Gardens man accused in the shooting deaths of two brothers at a county park in East Los Angeles last November pleaded not guilty last week to murder charges.

Pedro Vasquez, 23, was charged April 6 with the Nov. 22, 2015, killings of Antonio Aguilar, 33, and Juan Aguilar, 28, at Ruben Salazar Park.

The murder charges include the special circumstance allegation of multiple murders, but prosecutors have yet to decide whether to pursue the death penalty.

Vasquez allegedly approached the two men at the park and opened fire on them, with both suffering multiple gunshot wounds.

Juan Aguilar had once dated Vasquez’s sister, according to authorities, who have not disclosed a motive for the killings.

Vasquez has remained jailed since his April 4 arrest. He is due back at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse Aug. 11, when a date is scheduled to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require him to stand trial.

Cyclist Shot Dead in Bell Gardens

July 7, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

Authorities Wednesday identified a man who was fatally shot while riding a bicycle along the Los Angeles River bicycle path in Bell Gardens in an attack investigators believe was gang-related.

The victim was Joseph Barela, 33, of Bell Gardens, said Los Angeles County coroner’s Lt. Ed Dietz.

The shooting was reported at 6:26 p.m. Monday along the bike path west of the Long Beach (710) Freeway and north of Firestone Boulevard, said Deputy Crystal Hernandez of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau.

The victim was riding a bicycle on the dirt path adjacent to the Los Angeles River just west of the Long Beach Freeway when “the suspect approached him on foot and shot him,” Hernandez said.

The victim was pronounced dead at the scene, she said.

The suspect was described as a man wearing dark clothing who ran to a vehicle on the Long Beach Freeway and rode off southbound and out of view, Hernandez said.

“The incident appears to be gang-related,” she said.

Bell Gardens Finances Continue to Improve

June 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The opening of the highly anticipated hotel at The Bicycle Casino turned into a $1 million jackpot for the city of Bell Gardens, which wagered on the success of the project to increase city revenue.

It was only a couple years ago that the city faced a $1 million budget deficit resulting from the economic recession and state closure of its redevelopment agency (RDA), which had contributed millions of dollars to rehabilitate the city’s blighted areas.

Bell Gardens’ luck has since turned around and the city is anticipating a $1 million dollar surplus in its 2016-2017 Fiscal Year Budget of $29.7 million. $200,000 of the surplus will go to the city’s reserves – a fund set aside for emergencies or unexpected expenses.

Mayor Pro Tem Pedro Aceituno credits the surplus to staff being frugal and holding the line during troubled times.

“We didn’t overspend,” Aceituno said.

Bicycle Casino profits continue to play a major role in the predominately Latino blue-collar community’s financial health, with nearly half of the city’s general fund revenue coming from Casino fees.

The Bicycle Casino is expected to generate $13 million in revenue this year. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The Bicycle Casino is expected to generate $13 million in revenue this year. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

In 2012, Casino revenue dwindled to an all-time low of $9.3 million, sparking a budget deficit that year. Now on the rebound, Casino revenue is expected to reach $13 million this year, $1.8 million more than in 2015-2016 and $170,000 more than its peak in 2008.

“For years, we were losing players to other casinos with hotels, [but] now we are able to keep them here,” City Manager Phil Wagner told EGP, referring to the opening of the Casino’s new hotel.

However, “It’s not just the economy doing better or hotel improvements, but a lot of it was that we managed our money very well,” he said.

The added revenue will offset $234,000 in lease revenue lost when the city was forced to sell of two city-owned shopping centers, as part of a settlement with the state over the closing of its redevelopment agency. Wagner believes the city is in the “9th inning” of the RDA ordeal, “it’s over when the state says it’s over,” he added.

“The key thing is the loss from the RDA negotiations could have been much bigger.”
Staff worked hard to minimize the damage, which could have reached up to $4 million, said Director of Finance Will Kaholokula.

Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez also credits city staff and elected officials for Bell Gardens’ “thriving” economy. “We’re one of the cities that had a plan to get us through rough times,” she told EGP.

Unlike some neighboring cities, “we have worked efficiently together without worrying about the politics,” she pointed out.

That’s a major step forward from years past when Bell Gardens City Council meetings were often the scene of loud political bickering. Rodriguez and Aceituno, both longtime councilmembers, believe the lack of political turmoil is why food retailers like Dunkin Donuts and Chipotle are now flocking to the city, despite its predominately Latino, working-class demographics and being only 2.4-square-miles in size, factors that have been deterrents to investments in other cities.

As a result, sales tax revenue is up and unemployment is down.

Like neighboring Montebello, the Bell Gardens City Council will continue to grapple with its aging and money losing water system.

After years of putting off a decision, plans are in the works to hold workshops and public hearings on the water utility’s future. Experts say the 50 year old infrastructure needs costly long term repairs, but the utility does not generate enough revenue to even cover current operating expenses. Purchased in 1991, the Bell Gardens water system services about 30% of city residents. Rates have not been raised in over 20 years.

Dunkin Donuts and Chipotle are two of the newest retailers opening its doors in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Dunkin Donuts and Chipotle are two of the newest retailers opening its doors in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The city can continue to offer the low rates but it will require long term planning, according to Wagner. “The city council will have to decide whether they want to maintain the system, sell the system or increase water rates,” he explained.

Another bright note in city finances has been the significant reduction in golf course related losses, from a deficit of $90,000 per year to $18,000 after turning the facility over to an outside management company.

“We do a lot that doesn’t make money but we want to be able to make enough to cover the costs,” said Wagner.

The rising cost of California Public Employees’ Retirement (PERS) obligations will continue to challenge the city, but Wagener says there’s not much the city can do except save up. City staff has proposed starting an irrevocable trust fund to cover future pension obligations as part of a long-term solution.

Like most southeast communities, Wagner says Bell Gardens must address infrastructure and general capital improvement projects including streets, alleys and parks.

Turf on the soccer field at Ford Park needs be replaced at a cost of $1 million, notes Assistant Manager John Oropeza.

“Now that we have a little surplus we can make sure that comes back to our residents,” said Aceituno who would like to see some previously cut programs return.

But Rodriguez believes a surplus does not translate to a party.

“We can’t start splurging just because there’s a surplus,” she told EGP. “Before we even touch the money we have to exhaust all other options and continue to plan ahead.”

Bell Gardens Students Receive Prestigious College Scholarships

May 26, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Four Bell Gardens students will be pursuing their dreams this fall at prestigious universities across the country, all at nearly no cost to them or their families.

Erik Herrera, Leslie Luqueno, Omar Morales and Ainslee Preciado received hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to attend college from the universities themselves, the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators and special scholarships including the Dell Scholar and the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholar program.

“These four Bell Gardens High students, along with their peers across the District, represent the high-quality education offered and received at Montebello Unified,” MUSD Superintendent Susanna Contreras Smith said.

(Left to right): Bell Gardens High School students Omar Morales, Ainslee Preciado , Leslie Luqueno and Erik Herrera. (Photo courtesy Jesse Melgar)

(Left to right): Bell Gardens High School students Omar Morales, Ainslee Preciado , Leslie Luqueno and Erik Herrera. (Photo courtesy Jesse Melgar)

Herrera, who will serve as class valedictorian during next month’s graduation, will attend California Institution of Technology where he will study mathematics and music theory. He boasts a 4.37 GPA and serves as Bell Gardens drum major. Herrera received a scholarship from CalTech, which is expected to cover nearly all his tuition.

Preciado plans to attend UCLA this fall and will have her entire undergraduate and graduate school costs covered after being selected as a Gates Millennium Scholar. This is the second consecutive year that a Bell Gardens high school student is a recipient of the unique scholarship. Preciado is interested in pursuing law after attending the Yale Young Global Scholars program last summer. She is a singer, violinist and active member of her church youth group and is poised to graduate with a 4.02 GPA.

Morales will attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor on a full-ride scholarship from the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators. He hopes to study aerospace engineering. Morales has a 4.23 GPA and is an active member of the cross country and track and field teams.

Luqueno is one of 350 Dell Scholars selected in the country. She will be attending Haverford College in Pennsylvania this fall to pursue her interest in political science. As a Dell Scholar, she was awarded a $20,000 scholarship, a laptop, textbook gift cards and support throughout her academic career. Luqueno serves as editor in chief of Bell Gardens high school’s Lancer Scroll and has a 4.11 GPA.

CA Sen. Lara Urges Undocumented Parents to Sign Kids Up For Health Care

May 19, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media – Kicking off his statewide tour to promote California’s Health for All Kids program, the new law’s author, State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, said undocumented parents should set their fears aside and enroll their children in the program. The legislation would expand the state’s health insurance program for low-income people.

“There’s a misconception among immigrants,” Lara said, that asking for government help could land them in trouble. He made this observation during a May 12 media presentation at San Francisco’s Mission Neighborhood Health Center.

Mindful of this, the Health for All Kids program – which launched on Tuesday — was designed so children who currently have limited access to health care through the Emergency Medi-Cal, Healthy San Francisco or Healthy Kids programs would “seamlessly transition” into full-scope Medi-Cal (California’s version of Medicaid), said Lara. He was flanked on the podium by State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Democrat Assemblymembers Phil Tang and David Chiu.

Representatives of such health advocacy groups as Children Now, Health Access, California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, Asians Advancing Justice and California Immigrant Policy Center also spoke at the media briefing.

 California State Sen. Lara at a press conference promoting the California Health for All Kids program. Photo courtesy Jesse Melgar)

California State Sen. Lara at a press conference promoting the California Health for All Kids program. Photo courtesy Jesse Melgar)

170,000 California Children Eligible
An estimated 170,000 undocumented children are eligible to enroll in the state-funded program, expected to cost $40 million in the first year of its operation, and $137 million annually “in perpetuity,” Lara said.

Lara drew on his experience growing up in the United States as the child of poor undocumented immigrants from Mexico to emphasize why it’s important to have children enrolled in health insurance.

“Children shouldn’t have to worry about how their parents are going to pay for a broken arm or for a dentist,” the lawmaker said.
Leno, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, said the importance of the Health For All Kids program can not be overemphasized because illnesses make no distinction between documented and undocumented people.

“Our bodies, viruses, bacteria don’t know what our immigration status is,” Leno said. He noted that dental problems alone results in around 500,000 children in California missing school each year.

He also observed, “Without a high school diploma, a child is more likely to find his way into the criminal justice system.”

‘Get a Clue, Donald Trump’
Leno’s elicited laughter when he quipped, “Get a clue, Donald Trump.” He was referring to the Republican presidential presumptive GOP nominee’s vow to upend the Affordable Care Act (ACA) should he become president.

Undocumented Bay Area resident Teresa Lopez, a mother of four children, said she would be relieved to see her Mexico-born daughter, Litzy, age 15, enroll in the full-scope Medi-Cal program and enjoy accessing health care the way her two U.S.-born children currently do.
“Having to make copayments for every visit, and for medications is taking a toll on my family,” said Lopez, speaking in Spanish, through an interpreter. “It will be nice when all my children have the same kind of health care benefits.”

Lara noted earlier this week that the California Department of Health Care Services, which operates Medi-Cal, has said it is ready for the influx of thousands of children when the Health For All Kids program begins next week.

Lara is hopeful that Gov. Jerry Brown will sign his second bill, SB 10, which is currently making its way through the Legislature. It would allow the state’s undocumented adults to buy unsubsidized health insurance on Covered California, the online marketplace set up under ACA, with their own money. More than 2 million people currently have no access to health care, Lara said.

California has sought a federal waiver to allow its undocumented population to purchase health insurance on the marketplace.

“We hope we get the waiver before the administration in Washington changes,” Lara said, suggesting that the next U.S. president might either dismantle ACA or make drastic changes to it.

Teresa Lopez with her U.S.-born child, said she hopes to enroll her Mexico-born daughter, age 15, into the new Health For All Kids Program.  (Photo courtesy Jesse Melgar)

Teresa Lopez with her U.S.-born child, said she hopes to enroll her Mexico-born daughter, age 15, into the new Health For All Kids Program. (Photo courtesy Jesse Melgar)

Medi-Cal Provider Shortage
In the wake of the new Health For All Kids program, Lara was asked how the state could cope with the large influx of new Medi-Cal enrollees when there is already a shortage of doctors and dentists in the Medi-Cal network.

He said that said he hopes lawmakers would make the program more attractive to health care providers by increasing reimbursement rates, currently among the lowest in the nation.

“We are going to keep pushing for this,” Lara said.

Longtime Bell Gardens Activist Remembered

May 12, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Holding back tears, for a brief moment Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez found it difficult to muster the words to adequately honor a local man who had spent years of his life as an activist and volunteer in Bell Gardens.

“Ron Hoyt was an honorable man,” said Rodriguez, a tissue in her hand. “He was a man that was very involved with our community and who did what he thought was right,” she said during the City Council meeting Monday.

William “Ron” Hoyt died April 29 in his Bell Gardens home after a long battle with lymphoma. He was 89.

Lea este artículo en Español: Bell Gardens Recuerda a Activista, Comisionado

He was remembered at the same meeting where his widow Sally Hoyt was recognized as the Bell Gardens’ Older American of the Year. Sally, like her husband, is a longtime city activist and volunteer.

“Ron loved the city of Bell Gardens and he wanted the best for it,” said Sally about her late husband.

“He was the greatest man on earth. He was genuine,” she told the people gathered at City Hall.

Mr. Hoyt was born on March 17, 1927 in Kansas City, Missouri. He attended high school in Wichita, Kansas and earned a Bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wichita. In 1950, he moved to California and obtained an Associate Arts degree in chemistry from El Camino College.

Sally Hoyt (center) accepts posthumous recognition from Bell Gardens City Council for her late husband Ron during Monday’s meeting. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Sally Hoyt (center) accepts posthumous recognition from Bell Gardens City Council for her late husband Ron during Monday’s meeting. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Mr. Hoyt worked in the metal finishing industry for 47 years as a chemist, production manager, vice president of production, process design engineer and following his retirement as a consultant.

The Hoyts met in nearby Commerce while working at a metal finishing facility that specialized in the aerospace industry.

“He was my boss,” Mrs. Hoyt told EGP, a coy smile crossing her lips. They were married for 55 years.

The couple was very involved in their local community. Together they attended nearly every council meeting since the early 1970s. They worked on many political campaigns, were members of the Friends of the Library and belonged to three senior clubs.

“They were inseparable,” reflected longtime friend Rosie Vasquez, a former Montebello councilwoman and Bell Gardens employee. “They were both dedicated to the city.”

The late Mr. Hoyt served 12 years as chairman of the Bell Gardens Planning Commission. According to City Planner Carmen Morales he took his role very seriously.

“He did not want the commission to be perceived as a rubber stamp,” Morales explained. “He would read every line, looked at every dimension, caught misprints and had plenty of questions,” Morales recalled.

As a planning commissioner, Mr. Hoyt played a role in many of the major developments that have since financially benefited the city, including the Los Jardines Shopping Center, The Bicycle Casino and Hotel and the Village Square shopping center.

He was not a member of the city council, but his contributions on the planning commission helped keep the city financially stable, Vasquez said.

Ron Hoyt, left, died in his Bell Gardens home April 29. (Courtesy of Sally Hoyt)

Ron Hoyt, left, died in his Bell Gardens home April 29. (Courtesy of Sally Hoyt)

“He wanted Bell Gardens to be a better place because it was our home,” recalled his wife.

“He was a very quiet sincere intelligent man who cared about people, about his city and was willing to work for it to make it a better place,” added longtime friend Eddie Vasquez.

In 2014, the Hoyts were the inspiration behind legislation introduced by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia: Assembly Bill 1596 required all vote-by-mail applications, when completed, to be mailed directly to the county registrar’s office and not to middlemen or political campaign organizations. AB 1596 became law in 2015.

A celebration of life is still in the planning stage, according to his wife, who explained her late husband chose to donate his body to science.

“That’s the type of person he was,” she said. “Even in his death he thought about other people.”

Ron Hoyt is survived by his wife, 7 children, 32 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and 5 great-great grandchildren.

“He will be a great loss to our community,” said Rodriguez. “He did a lot for our community, but all of us who knew him, knew him for the person he was not for what he accomplished.”

Special Needs Youth ‘STAR’ In Bell Gardens

April 21, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

In a wheelchair, only able to control his eyes, mouth, and fingers, Ruben Martinez felt alone and misunderstood for most of his life. In desperation, he would day after day lock himself in his bedroom.

“You cant give up, you have to move forward,” Ruben’s mother Antonia Perez would tell her son.

Lea este artículo en Español: Jóvenes con Necesidades Especiales Conviven en Bell Gardens

Now 32-years-old, Ruben has come out of his shell, Perez says proudly, crediting a Bell Gardens program she helped create for his turn-around.

He used to be so shy and embarrassed he could not even order a meal at McDonalds, now he is working on his master’s degree, she told EGP Friday.

Sandra Leyva, right, coordinator for the Special Time for Adaptive Recreation (STAR) program, enjoys a game of bingo with STAR participants at the Bell Gardens Veterans Park Senior Center. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Sandra Leyva, right, coordinator for the Special Time for Adaptive Recreation (STAR) program, enjoys a game of bingo with STAR participants at the Bell Gardens Veterans Park Senior Center. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Perez said she did not want her son’s muscular dystrophy to define him, recalling how she made it a point to try and instill in him that he was not less than anyone else just because he suffered from a muscle disease that hindered his movement and weakened his musculoskeletal system.

But he needed more, she said.

The city offered recreational youth programs like soccer and football, but none specifically catered to children with special needs, the Bell Gardens residents said.

“It was like nobody cared about our children,” Perez said in Spanish, telling EGP that’s when she started advocating for Bell Gardens’ special needs community, eventually convincing the city council to support creation of a program for children with disabilities.

It’s been 20 years and the Special Time for Adaptive Recreation (STAR) program is still serving special needs children, teen and adults by giving them a place where they can take part in activities in an environment that encourages acceptance.

“Their condition shouldn’t matter, everyone should just see them as people,” Perez told EGP Friday during the group’s weekly program.

Participants of the Special Time for Adaptive Recreation (STAR) program meet every Friday at 4:30p.m. at the Bell Gardens Veterans Park Senior Center. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Participants of the Special Time for Adaptive Recreation (STAR) program meet every Friday at 4:30p.m. at the Bell Gardens Veterans Park Senior Center. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

STAR is handled like any other program offered by the city’s recreation department, explains Program Coordinator Sandra Leyva. The city uses the same staff that works on other park programs, but while no special training is required, everyone working with STAR is handpicked, according to Leyva.

There are currently about 17 or so special needs youth in the program, ranging from 9- to 32-year of age; Ruben is the oldest participant.

“It’s a unique program because it gives participants space to be themselves, they make friends and they learn to interact and socialize,” says Leyva.

“It has also serves as a support group for parents and participants,” she added.

Ruben witnessed that first hand, watching his mother take advantage of the opportunity to relax and unwind while he learned to relate to others and improve his self esteem.

“I feel like a mentor now,” Ruben told EGP, lightly holding the knob that controls his power wheelchair. “I feel like an inspiration for the younger kids to look up to.”

Like Ruben, 21-year-old Juan Torres also suffers from muscular dystrophy and by age 10 could no longer walk.

“I learned I’m not the only one with this condition,” said Juan as he looks around at the friends he has made since joining STAR. “I thought that for a very long time,” he said Friday, no longer believing his life revolves around his condition.

Last Friday, his focus was on playing Bingo. Sitting next to him was 12-year-old Antonio Franco, paying close attention to the numbers on the card in front of him.

“Bingo!” Antonio suddenly yelled excitedly.

Josefina Blancas, left, and her husband Epifanio Sanchez take their son Fredy Sanchez, center, to the STAR program offered in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez )

Josefina Blancas, left, and her husband Epifanio Sanchez take their son Fredy Sanchez, center, to the STAR program offered in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez )

“I love coming here,” he said, I’ve been coming since I was a little 1-year-old,” Antonio said as he put on the red Chivas hat he claimed as his prize.

“I made friends … I like this place … I like the people!”

Sitting next to her son, making sure he did not miss a number, Antonio’s mother Maria Mireles said the STAR program has helped her deal with raising a son with cerebral palsy, a permanent movement disorders that causes difficulty with sensation, vision, hearing, swallowing and speaking.

“Our children come together while we parents come to share” our experience, she said in Spanish, explaining the dual benefits of the program.

Nearby, some of the parents huddled together to give each other support and advice on raising a child with challenges other children may not have.

“We laugh, we cry, it’s like therapy because we’re all in the same boat,” says Angelica Cardenas, whose son has spinal bifida, a birth defect that prevents the child’s spinal cord from developing properly.

“The truth is we don’t know anything when we become mothers, but we have learned from each other,” she said.

Cardenas said she learned about the STAR program when her son was only a couple of months old and in the hospital. She recalled seeing a young girl with special needs who looked lonely and sad, and telling herself she never wanted her son to feel that way.

“Even though he was still very young, I wanted to learn from the moms and I wanted my son to be around children with different levels so he could see he can be different surrounded by others.”

Even though Fredy Sanchez was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes developmental and intellectual delays, his mother Josefina Blancas and her husband Epifanio Sanchez treated him like any other boy growing up.

“He plays basketball in Montebello, baseball in Downey and dances in Plaza Mexico,” his proud mother boasted as Fredy, 25, colored nearby.

The mothers help guide each other through the school system, ensuring their children receive the services they deserve. They share their experiences with programs like Make-a-Wish and The Starlight Foundation that provide special experiences for chronically ill children.

Most importantly, the group has become a second family.

“Our kids learn to love themselves, there is no discrimination, no bullying,” Cardenas said.

“There is a friendship, they invite each other to birthdays and learn to miss each other.”

The mother of a son with severe autism, who is non-verbal, told EGP he somehow knows Friday is a special day.

“As soon he sees us driving past a particular street, he gets emotional and excited,” she confided.

Some kids may at first feel out of their element, not knowing anyone, but that changes and most find STAR has had a lasting impact on their lives.

To outsiders, 15-year-old Jason Cruz looks like a typical teen, wearing punk rock t-shirt and a vest covered in pins and patches. Before joining STAR, Jason’s autism kept him from interacting with people. Now he plays upright bass and is in a psychobilly band.

“I got to meet new people,” Jason said Friday. “[STAR] helped me be the person I am today.”
Jocelyn Camacho also has autism. During a special Christmas program last year, dressed as Mrs. Claus and singing a song she wrote herself, the 14-year-old perfectly summed up why everyone likes the “very special program with very nice people.”

“They love me… they see I’m beautiful inside and out,” sang Camacho. “And I don’t even wear makeup.”

The STAR program meets every Friday from 4:30-6:30p.m at Bell Gardens Veterans Park. For more information, call (562) 334-1779.

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