Santa Ana has one of the largest youth populations in California. For decades, it has also been “park poor.”

That means that children, youth and families in the city had very limited community recreation areas, green spaces, bike lanes or skate parks.

​​Nearly 31% of the population of Santa Ana is under 18-years-old, making it one the youngest cities in the U.S.

Beginning in 2016, a group of KidWorks youth set out to change all that.

“This took years of effort, coupled with leadership, intense research, working with elected officials and much more,” says Maria Ruvalcaba, KidWorks’ Youth Leadership Development Coordinator.

“Now, we are seeing their hard work come to fruition,” she says.

Maria explains that through these leadership projects and campaigns youth develop critical thinking skills, academic and professional skills such as working together towards a goal, as well as leadership skills such as public speaking.  

“These skills help them feel empowered which helps them build agency and courage to speak up for themselves and call for positive change in their communities,” Maria says.

In late March, the city held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Friendship Park, a small green place located around the corner from our Dan Donahue Center. The park features such amenities as a jungle gym, picnic tables and concrete bollards for traffic safety.

KidWorks’ youth Estrella Moreno, a high school senior, and Jose Vazquez, 12th grade, played a big role in working with the city leading up to the April 3 ribbon cutting.

“The lessons I learned by being part of this project is that teamwork and communication are key, especially for a project like Friendship Park,” Estrella says. “It’s extremely important to communicate with one another, share ideas, hear other people’s inputs and take them into consideration.”

Estrella’s role in making Friendship Park a reality included providing input and ideas (along with other KidWorks’ youth), to city decision-makers. She also monitored the progress of the park renovation and bike trail addition.

Getting buy-in from the neighborhood was also part of the process.

“My team by talked with the students and neighbors who live in the area about what they would like to see,” Estrella says. “Being part of the planning and knowing that the park is now open is a very big accomplishment for KidWorks’ youth. We had a say and our voices were heard.”

“Friendship Park is the fourth success story achieved by our youth over the past seven years,” Maria says. 

The other three are:

KidWorks alumni Evelyn Torres, a Vanguard University senior who’s graduating in May, and Irma Mateo, a third-year student attending the University of California, Berkeley, were deeply involved for several years beginning in 2016.

Evelyn was one of the KidWorks organizers for the Youth for Active and Safe Communities group. 

“I participated in meetings with the City of Santa Ana, the University of California, Irvine  and community members,” Evelyn says. “We also shared our team’s research results with Sacramento officials.”

She adds, “These efforts validated the need for more skate venues in our community. Knowing that the project created a safe space for families is such a rewarding feeling. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments. The work we did as high schoolers will have a positive impact for future generations.”

“I learned so much about decision-making and problem-solving throughout this project,” Irma says. “We faced many challenges and needed to make a lot of decisions, so it was very important to analyze situations and come up with solutions we all agreed on. My teammates taught me to be more confident and speak up; it’s always important to share your ideas.”

“Each of these parks is in some measure the result of KidWorks’ strategic focus on developing tomorrow’s leaders, beginning with students enrolled in our state-licensed preschool,” Maria says.

Building future leaders is woven into KidWorks’ DNA. Starting in our preschool, youth are assigned leadership roles in the classroom to help them develop the skills and self-confidence they can use their entire lives. KidWorks’ youth leaders receive education and training to make a meaningful impact in their homes, at KidWorks, in their careers and in the community.

“Evelyn and Irma, along with several other KidWorks alumni, spoke before the Santa Ana City Council, Parks and Recreation Department and met with other elected officials,” Maria says. “They also partnered with such skateboard advocacy groups.”

In a KidWorks blog story from 2017 Maria said, “Active transportation—such as biking, walking and skateboarding—is how many of our youth get to school, appointments and other destinations. Being physically active is part of our advocacy for healthy diets and exercise.”

That vision took tenacity, drive and true leadership to come to fruition.

The year 2017 was also when KidWorks youth took a more active role in making sure their voices were heard and insights understood by city leaders.

“That engagement with decision-makers continues to this day,” Maria says. “What’s even more impressive is that these youth have inspired their younger siblings and their friends to also be passionate and take on leadership roles about issues they care about.”

She adds, “The younger siblings and friends also want to help their community and make a positive change for their families and neighbors. They experience a beautiful feeling when they walk past a park and know that they played a key role in its design.”

Maria says these issues largely revolve around making sure their Santa Ana has adequate green spaces, parks (including those with fitness equipment), bike lanes and more.

“The city is also in the midst of finalizing their annual budget and KidWorks youth have gone to council meetings to voice support that monies are allocated for these purposes,” Maria says. “Over the years, I believe city officials have come to value the ideas, insights and leadership of KidWorks’ youth.

“It’s so uplifting to see how our youth have made indelible, positive impact on Santa Ana and acquired leadership skills that will surely grow stronger over the years.”

By Glenn Leibowitz, volunteer writer