Colorful awnings. Artistic murals. The sound of the ice cream truck. One might think these are descriptions of a carnival or county fair. On September 20, however, members of The Trusteeship learned that these sights were also possible in the middle of the economically and politically disenfranchised community of Boyle Heights, thanks to the efforts of Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission Church.
Proyecto Pastoral is a non-profit organization working in Boyle Heights.
The statistics of Boyle Heights – 3 local gangs, school drop of rate of 61%, median household income of just over $20k – hardly make it seem comparable to a county fair. But, Cynthia Sanchez, executive director of Proyecto Patoral, showed us a different aspect of the community. Cynthia is The Trusteeship’s first Adrienne Hall Emerging Leadership Award winner and was eager to tour us around the facilities and provide further insight into the organization. She greeted us upon arrival and explained that this inter-city oasis was intended to be a gathering place for the community with access for all. The space consisted of a brick patio complete with picnic tables, a Spanish style fountain and garden plots, which we later learned were a partnership with Stephen S. Wise Temple. Surrounding the courtyard were the buildings that housed Proyecto Pastoral: Dolores Mission church, program offices and a preschool. The offices served as temporary housing for homeless men in the community, just one of many programs Proyecto Pastoral offers to the community.
Cynthia led our group into one of the humble office spaces, and members of the staff and board of directors greeted us. The staff is made of 44 dedicated and hard working individuals, who oversee different projects within Proyecto Pastoral. They had specialty groups for almost all phases of life, each working for the betterment of the community. Further emphasizing this local importance, over half of Proyecto Pastoral’s Board members are community residents. “It is our vision to empower the residents to practice personal and community transformation.” Cynthia shared, “It’s not about our organization coming in and doing things for them, but more about us equipping them to be the change that is needed.”
Trusteeship member Peggy York had amazing insight into the success of this method. Ten years ago, as Deputy Sheriff of LAPD, Peggy worked with members from the mission. Remembering her main contact person, she asked hopefully, “Is Rita still here?” Sure enough, Rita Chairez was still there, and now sat on the Board. “The members of the community are the reason that I got involved here years ago.” Peggy recalled after a warm reuniting, “The women of this community held our feet to the fire when they weren’t getting the response they needed. They were persistent and made sure that what they wanted to happen, happened. It was really a remarkable time seeing them getting started.”
While years have passed, the passion and persistence of the women has hardly faltered. The women shared stories of how they were empowered through the programs. We were all moved by the story of resident board member Esparanza Vasquez, who, through a Spanish-English translator, recalled her experience. One night, while Esparanza was volunteering at Proyecto Pastoral, she noticed a large group of teenage boys in a huddle, a telltale sign of the beginning of a gang fight. Alone, but undaunted by the situation, Esparanza approached the group and broke into the middle of the circle. “You are not fighting on my shift! Go home!” she ordered them and proceeded to walk the two main culprits to their homes. Upon returning to Proyecto Pastoral, Esparanza remembers breaking down crying. “They really respect us. No one should have to be afraid to stand on the corner. As scary as they seem, they respect us and know that what we want is the best for them.”
It is this type of commitment that leads to huge change. Remember that statistic that the Boyle Heights high schools had a 61% drop out rate? Well, the graduation rate of high school students active at Proyecto Pastoral is 100%. Cynthia smiled as she shared the statistic with us. “That is what this amazing community is capable of.”
We were undoubtedly impressed by the dedication, passion and effectiveness of the organization. Anne Lane shared, “In over 30 years of community organizing, I have noticed that it’s always been incredibly difficult to organize a Hispanic community, especially because women do not normally take those roles. Seeing what has been accomplished here is really extraordinary.”
Claire Rothman agreed that the program was extraordinary. “As a member of the committee that chose the Adrienne Hall Emerging Leadership Award recipient,” Claire beamed, “I know for certain we made the right choice.”