The Coast News Group
Edgar Vergara, left, and Anotonio Cruz are members of La Colonia Changers, a group of teens trying to make positive changes in Eden Gardens by giving back to the community. Other members are Leslye and Brenda Mejia, Johanna Rosas, Celene Olivares, Alexis Sotelo, Tania Bartolo and Jorge Linares. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
Edgar Vergara, left, and Anotonio Cruz are members of La Colonia Changers, a group of teens trying to make positive changes in Eden Gardens by giving back to the community. Other members are Leslye and Brenda Mejia, Johanna Rosas, Celene Olivares, Alexis Sotelo, Tania Bartolo and Jorge Linares. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
Rancho Santa Fe

Neighborhood group’s message continues to thrive

A safe environment, opportunities for youth resound in the community

This is the third and final story in a series about Eden Gardens.

SOLANA BEACH — When drug and gang activity threatened the security of Solana Beach’s oldest community more than two decades ago, a group of citizens worked together with city leaders, law enforcement and other organizations to “get rid of the undesirables,” longtime resident Alice Granados said.

Although Eden Gardens Against Drugs has long since disbanded, its efforts are still visible throughout La Colonia de Eden Gardens, the formal name of the area that about 1,100 people now call home.

More importantly, the group’s mission to provide a safe environment and opportunities for youth continues to thrive.

In the heart of the community is La Colonia Park and Community Center, which was dedicated in May 1991.

“Our dream, my dream years ago was for kids to play soccer or baseball there,” Granados said. Although administrative issues delayed that dream at the time, the facility now offers activities, programs and classes for residents of all ages.

The field is used for a variety of organized sports and pick-up games as well as city events such as egg hunts, a family campout and Paws in the Park.

In the building’s front courtyard a ceremony honoring servicemen and women is held every Memorial and Veterans Day. There are plans to upgrade the entire facility once funding is identified, however, a project to recognize Solana Beach veterans is moving forward.

To further enhance Eden Gardens in 1991, Dr. Dick Wheelock opened a clinic to serve the uninsured working poor in the community. Two years later dental services were added.

The St. James and St. Leo Medical and Dental Program continues offering health care to area residents every Saturday morning and Wednesday night.

In November 1996, a community storefront office for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department opened at La Colonia Community Center and 10 years later the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito expanded and an Eden Gardens branch was added there.

That organization currently serves more than 100 elementary school students and teenagers by providing “a safe and supervised haven after school and during the summer months,” according to the website.

Mentoring and academic support and fitness and recreational activities are just some of the available programs.

The club recently partnered with nearby Crush Italian Restaurant to create a mentoring program that teaches industry skills. Five teens from the La Colonia branch are currently participating in the 10-week program by shadowing every position to gain real world experience.

For nearly a decade Kids Korps USA has hosted a weeklong summer camp at La Colonia Park for youngsters from diverse, low-income families, teaching them how they can help others and build a more sustainable future.

In past years participants have visited senior citizens and picked vegetables for local Head Start preschools and low-income families.

Perhaps the greatest effort to celebrate the unique character of Eden Gardens and help provide opportunities for today’s youth is La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, which seemingly picked up where EGAD left off.

Through the tireless efforts of current chairman Manny Aguilar, the organization is continually seeking ways to improve the community.

Aguilar said the foundation sprang from grassroots efforts more than 30 years ago “to address the challenges of the community.”

He said the major challenges stem from “institutional barriers such as intolerance, prejudice, bigotry, ignorance and bias that led our youth to seek other places to find friends and acceptance.”

“Unfortunately, this led our youth to police brutality, violence, drug usage and high school dropout rates,” Aguilar said.

The foundation seeks to address these issues “through prevention and early intervention and prevention programs through community dialogue, to seek positive solutions via close collaboration with community partners, parents and our youth.”

To achieve those goals, forums are held to garner input from residents. The foundation recently partnered with the National Latino Research Center at California State University San Marcos to conduct community-based research to find solutions to issues and provide real-world applications in areas such as education, public health and civic engagement.

That study is ongoing, with results expected to be presented this summer.

In the summer of 2013 the foundation began a camp for teenagers, who spent a week at Whispering Winds in the Cuyamaca Mountains developing leadership skills to help the community, learn about career opportunities and enjoy hikes and swimming.

That first camp — another is planned for this summer — resulted in the formation of La Colonia Changers, a group of teenagers motivated to make a difference and give back to the community.

Edgar Vergara and Anotonio Cruz, both 15, and several other teens are currently working on a project called Photo Voice, which they plan to present to city council in May.

The youth are taking pictures of positive and negative things they see around the community and documenting their thoughts about the images and how they impact the neighborhood.

The photos include pictures of dark areas or people drinking or smoking at the park, activities prohibited by city laws.

Group members play for and coach three youth soccer teams created under the foundation. They are also holding a free forum April 30 focused on understanding underage drinking, why it happens and how it impacts the community.

Volunteers helped out at a local church. “It was refreshing to see young people go in and do hard work and not complain,” Maggy Hillenbrand, from Mission Circle at St. James Parish, said. “They seemed to enjoy it. … They could have left but they stayed and worked all day. They have more than paid back to the community.”

Edgar and Antonio said they were most inspired by a guest speaker at the summer camp who started dealing drugs at 12 years old, but ended up getting a law degree from the University of California Berkeley and running an after-school program in Oceanside.

“He talked about how you have support and should reach for the stars,” Edgar said.  “It got me to think I want to go out there and have a good career and came back and give back to help other people.”

“Since I started coming to the group I’ve seen changes in the community,” Antonio said. “I don’t see teenagers hanging around the park when we’re practicing.”

“I love the park,” Edgar added. “I want to make it feel safe and just have fun. I love our community. That’s why we want to improve it.”

“Everybody in every family wants the same things,” Aguilar said. “We want to feel safe. We want a good education for our kids. We want a good living and to enjoy the community.”

Contact Aguilar for more information on the foundation at [email protected]. Call (619) 777-6365 for information on the April 30 forum, which will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at North Coast Fellowship on Genevieve Street.