On a recent Saturday afternoon at the United University Church on USC’s University Park campus, a child asked a group of freshmen how to stay focused despite gangs and drugs at his middle school.
With support from a $15,000 USC Neighborhood Outreach grant, a year-round program called Peace Camp/Peace Kids/Youth Leadership Academy in Peacemaking can suggest some answers.
A collaboration between USC’s El Centro Chicano and Latino Floor and the United University Church’s Peace Center, the program teaches conflict resolution, meditation, yoga, mindful eating habits and violence prevention to children ages 5 to 18.
Participants listen to guest speakers; learn about “peace heroes” such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr.; and participate in letter-writing campaigns and service projects.
At the end of each five-hour Saturday session, students from the Latino Floor — a residential community of 32 freshmen interested in Chicano and Latino culture — provide an additional 90 minutes of free tutoring and 30 minutes of mentoring about everything from college preparedness to identity issues and the threat of violence.
“Some of it is fun and games and very entertaining,” said Billy Vela, director of El Centro Chicano. “And then some of it is very deep and makes our current Latino Floor students more aware of the privileges that they have coming to USC and also the reality and challenges some of our [Peace Kids] are facing [in] trying to come to USC down the line.”
Vela estimated that 95 percent of the residents of the Latino Floor have volunteered with the program, which meets every two to three weeks. Between 10 and 20 children usually stay for the tutoring and mentoring segment.
“I like the one-on-one tutor sessions,” said Sandra Zaragoza, a Latino Floor resident majoring in biochemistry. “My child [who I tutored] said this program really helped her grades, and she enjoys school more now.”
Fellow Latino Floor resident and biochemistry major Jorge Rodriguez pointed out that the children aren’t the only ones to benefit from the program. “I’ve always loved tutoring others, so it’s a blessing to learn from others and teach as well,” he said.
Peace Camp/Peace Kids/Youth Leadership Academy in Peacemaking is one of more than 411 programs that have received grants from USC Neighborhood Outreach since 1995. The nonprofit grant-making organization enhances the quality of life in the neighborhoods surrounding the University Park and Health Sciences campuses through donations from USC faculty, staff and others.
Many of the gifts come during the annual USC Good Neighbors Campaign, which asks university faculty and staff to contribute a portion of their paychecks to support programs that help strengthen local communities.
“I wish I had this type of program when I was growing up,” said Latino Floor resident Arnold Monroy. “This is a way of giving back to the communities that these kids come from. This is my second time returning to Peace Kids and will definitely not be my last. I will help recruit because these children are our future.”
Established in 1972, El Centro Chicano serves as a support and resource center for all students and their families. Created in 1974-75, the Latino Floor residential program gives first-year students an opportunity to connect with peers who have similar interests or cultural backgrounds.
For more information, visit www.uniteduniversitychurch.org/peace/index.html