A schoolyard comes back to life

Santa Ana kids will have a new place to play when the school district and city combine to build a park on the grounds of Willard Intermediate School. Photo from city files.

Gay Olivos loves Willard Intermediate School. It’s a family thing. Olivos, her father and grandfather graduated from the Santa Ana junior high on the corner of Ross Street and Washington Avenue. Her family’s history is here, and Olivos wants to preserve the place that holds so many good memories.

“When I was growing up, we would always go to Willard and play,” she said. The Willard schoolyard was where Olivos and the neighborhood kids went to run and fly kites after school and on weekends.

But time, neglect and the statewide school funding crisis changed the grassy, five-acre field where Olivos played into a disheveled lot with portable classrooms parked on asphalt. The field was fenced, gates were locked, and Santa Ana’s children lost a rare piece of open space in one of California’s most densely-populated cities.

Olivos and her husband Joziff Lincoln, now homeowners near Willard, watched as groups of adult soccer players and gang members invaded the schoolyard, cutting holes in the fence and ripping off the gate to gain access. Daily soccer games started at 6 a.m. and lasted all day, every day of the year. Players undressed and relieved themselves in public; gangs spray-painted graffiti on portable classrooms and vandalized neighborhood property.

Aerial photo of Willard Intermediate School grounds and the surrounding neighborhood.

Streets around Willard were strewn with trash from departing soccer groups; a gunfight among warring gang players put a bullet through the Lincolns’ front window.

“It wasn’t regulated,” said Lincoln. “It attracts gangs and drugs if it’s not regulated. If there are no authorities showing, they do what they want to do.”

Olivos and Lincoln worried about the gang fights and declining property values. Most of all, they worried about the effect of neighborhood blight on their children and other families in the area.

“Local children couldn’t use the field at all,” said Olivos. “They couldn’t run track or have a simple baseball game.”

It was the beginning of a journey for Olivos. She became an advocate, going door to door to talk to neighbors about how they could restore Willard to the neighborhood children. At times it seemed like she was walking in the dark, but her efforts led to a surprising, and inspiring outcome.

Two key players in what transpired were Gerardo Mouet and Jane Russo. Mouet, executive director of Santa Ana’s Recreation and Parks Department, knew in 2007 that the City was interested in a partnership with the school district to create a joint-use park at Willard. Russo, superintendent of schools for the Santa Ana USD, was concerned about child obesity rates and lack of recreational space for students.

The idea of a joint-use project, with Mouet’s department managing the Willard field leased to it by the school district, seemed like the perfect answer for a crowded urban area desperate for safe, open space. It also allowed the city-school partnership to apply for Proposition 84 grant funding from the California State Parks Department to renovate the five-acre site.

The Willard site, with its five-acre field, also offered more space for development than an elementary school campus.

“Real estate is very expensive,” said Mouet. “It makes sense to partner on something like this. We’re improving the school’s recreational facilities, and we’re now opening up to a public park.”

Santa Ana, one of California’s most crowded cities, has no more room to expand its housing or public parks.

“One of our challenges is that we are a built-out community,” said Russo. “We don’t have park space. We’re second to San Francisco in population density.”

Forty years ago Santa Ana’s park space was sufficient for the number of residents, Mouet said. “In the 1980s and ‘90s, the population exploded. There weren’t enough parks built.”

The school district had developed a successful joint-use project 20 years ago when it built Godinez High School on city land, said Russo. There was no reason why a similar partnership couldn’t work at Willard.

“We sat down with the city to look at the grant application to see what we could do to bring some quality recreation space to our community,” she said.

The Proposition 84 grant application, written by Mouet’s department, was weighted heavily by the State Parks Department in favor of cities with demonstrated community input and critical lack of park space. With no park space within a one-half mile radius and less than three acres of usable park space per 1,000 residents, Willard easily met the second requirement.

To gather community feedback, Mouet enlisted Gay Olivos. He was impressed by her door-to-door activism with local residents who wanted to clean up the schoolyard but didn’t know how. Olivos was excited about the joint-use project and a new (old) place for neighborhood children to play.

It was a lesson in civics and community participation for the Willard neighborhood residents, many of whom are Spanish-speaking immigrants unfamiliar with their city’s procedures and regulations.

Many of the newer immigrants are intimidated, said Olivos, who is bilingual in Spanish and English. “They’re not aware of the law and that that park is for the children of the community,” she said. “Education is the key.”

Through a series of six community meetings that included parents of Willard students, local sports groups and neighborhood residents encouraged by Olivos, Mouet’s department shaped the grant proposal to the community’s priorities. The plan includes a synthetic turf multi-purpose playing field, playground, a rubberized Tarton track for walking or running, basketball courts and restrooms. Sports lighting and concrete pavement will add to enhance the safety aspect of the site.

Energy efficiency was also a highly-ranked item in the grant proposal, and the new site plan utilizes recycled materials and lighting in addition to the water-conserving synthetic turf.

When the State Parks Department announced its 72 first-round grant winners in December, 2010, the $4,400,000 award for the Willard project was among them. Its creators were proud and pleased.

“Gerardo’s team has just been awesome,” said Olivos. “It couldn’t have been done without them. They kept us in the loop the entire time.”

Mouet praised the many residents who attended planning sessions and helped structure the successful grant application.

“They inspired us to put the grant proposal together,” he said.

For Russo, the support base of city administration, school district, local residents and Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) was essential to move the project forward.

“This is certainly taking the partnership to a whole new level,” she said. “We now meet monthly with the city, and it has really enhanced our partnership.”

Construction at Willard is set to begin this summer. When the new field is completed sometime in 2012, residents will share access with students, and the field will be open at night and on weekends for multi-purpose use.

“We’re building a playground that makes sense when you see that the population around Willard is a lot of kids,” said Mouet. “It will be aesthetically very pleasing.”

It’s the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for Olivos and her husband. The Willard schoolyard is quiet now, awaiting construction that will restore it to its former place in the neighborhood, a place where children can run, play a game of baseball or fly their kites.

For Olivos, the years of community advocacy and hard work were worth the effort. Now families can exercise together, and new residents have a model of how to participate in the life of their community.

Her family’s history is here, and Olivos wants to preserve the place that holds so many good memories.

“I just fought for the kids,” she said.

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