When I first moved to San Ramon I was an explorer. I went everywhere walking, running or by bus. There was a lot to see and do and every neighborhood had its charm. Nowadays I like to pretend I’ve seen it all which unfortunately means I have fewer experiences like these:
One day during my first few weeks I lived in San Ramon, I was out jogging around when I made an innocent right turn and proceeded down a deep ravine road to see where my next adventure would take me. Bystanders on the street gazed at me as I hustled along down the road, like a dog retrieving a stick, and a few of them yelled some words of encouragement. Feeling more upbeat than a kid on the last day of school I picked up speed on the decent and nearly crashed head on into a big yellow wall just before regathering my footing. What was with all the barbed wire around the top? Was this a jail? The immensity of the site puzzled me as it stuck out raw in a neighborhood of residential makeshift homes.
I took note of it and continued my journey a few more blocks when I realized I wasn’t in the San Ramon I knew anymore. Every house had barbed wire, walls and barking dogs. Children were in the street, shirtless with no shoes, and old beater cars with souped up stereo systems were taking turns rattling their chassis across the street from one another with pounding reggaeton beats. The subwoofers had to be worth more than the cars.
This was all fine and dandy except for the way they were looking at me. It didn’t take too long but I realized I may have made a wrong turn back up the road, that maybe those kind words weren’t encouragement but rather words of warning. I was alone, in a new neighborhood and I doubt I would have been able to walk past them and come out on the other side without incident. I quickly faked a side ache and turned to head back up the hill, palms sweaty not knowing if I was being pursued but too scared to look back. At that moment the big yellow jail doors began to open. This is only going from bad to worse, I thought.
Well there was no stopping for me and at the moment the doors opened I caught a glimpse of a playground as I sped by the entrance. A playground? Inmates don’t have playgrounds, what could this be? In a split second I decided my options were better heading towards the playground then trying to outrun whoever might be pursuing me from down the hill.
I entered and saw that in addition to that playground there were soccer fields, basketball courts, reading rooms, computer rooms and classrooms. The big barb wired yellow complex was just a cover for a safe haven for the children of the roughest neighborhood San Ramon has to offer. Founded in 2008 and run by a Christian ministry, this community center provides education and spiritual guidance for those in need.
Since then I have volunteered on and off at the center, mostly on playground duty without really poking my nose around too much. I know that just my presence at the center is a big lift for the kids, even if I don’t always feel so special pushing kids on swings for hours or jumping rope. Any hours you can keep the kids off the street are hours well spent no matter what you are doing.
That had been my role until I bumped in the center’s coordinator in the street last week and she invited me to come to an open house they were having for the community. Even though I thought I knew what was happening at the center this would be a good opportunity to go for a visit. It became clear to me that what you see as a volunteer is quite different from what you see as a parent of a child that uses the center. This is not just a daycare for when children aren’t at school, this place requires work before you make it to the jungle gym.
The center’s focus is reading and math so therefore everyday when children arrive they must first go to the reading room and read for a certain number of minutes depending on their grade in school. Those who are too young to read are read to by volunteers. After that they go to work on math. It was very interesting to hear that learning the multiplication tables are what they work on the most. Once they have completed that they are able to go to the playground or stay and work on other homework. Students enrolled in the center are required to come at least 3 times a week to qualify for year end
parties and activities which is the best thing about their program. Everything is earned whether a pair of shoes or a pencil eraser. In a community as rough as this one with a lot of government subsidies it is important for children to earn their keep in order to break the cycle of poverty and value the things they’ve earned.
It’s amazing how many things I think I know just from the surface but when taking the time and digging deeper there is actually a whole lot more going on then what meets the eye. Makes me wonder if I should dust off the cross trainers and return to my old trailblazing routes. I’ve probably missed some things along the way.