Changing lives through a lens

By Clare Noonan, California Health Report

A slick Hollywood production it’s not. But a video by four Merced-area teens is a fresh, unvarnished look at the reality of life where they live.

That reality can be pretty gritty, as seen in “Let Me Introduce You … To My Neighborhood,” shot by Alyssa Castro, 18; Angel Romero, 18; Anthony Sanchez, 17; and Daniela Ceja, 14. Music plays in the background as scenes from Le Grand, Planada, Beachwood Franklin and south Merced play on the screen.

Daniela pans her camera over Houlihan Park in Planada, its sign covered with graffiti and a garbage can on its side, trash strewn on the ground.

She films the railroad tracks that run through the middle of town, marking the gang border between Norteños and Sureños. The Le Grand High School freshman says that a boy named Steven who was chasing his dog, Peanut, was killed recently on the tracks. The camera lingers on the memorial to the two, showing its pink and yellow flowers, a candle and white statue of an angel.

Daniela interviews 15-year-old Antonio. When she asks what businesses there are in Planada, he mentions the liquor store. As for places for kids to play, Antonio points out that the school playground is fenced off. The swings at the tiny town’s park have been removed, he says: “All I want to do is play on the swings and you can’t even do that no more.”

The camera takes in Amigos Market. “It’s really dangerous around here,” Daniela says, noting that she walked out of the store once, heard gunfire and ran back inside.

A place that’s full of warm memories is her old grade school, Planada Elementary. “This is a great school,” Daniela says, but one that has no band or extracurricular activities.

Anthony’s video shows Beachwood Franklin. It’s full of “broken-down homes, abandoned,” says the junior at Yosemite High’s continuation school. He walks through a neighborhood with no sidewalks on one side of the street and overhead lights that don’t work. An empty home sits behind a peeling red fence with missing slats.

“I never really thought about the fact that since people broke into our house and tried to steal our cars and stuff that this is the ghetto,” Anthony says.

But that fact and what it does to young people is becoming clear to him.

“I never really thought the neighborhood had to do with any of the reasons I found myself drinking and smoking bud and, like, standing in front of liquor stores asking for people to buy me beer,” Anthony says. “I never really thought of anything like that ‘cause it’s just how I grew up. I didn’t know anything different.”

Alyssa, a graduate of Golden Valley High School, films south Merced. As with Daniela, railroad tracks represent tragedy. Alyssa’s mother, Lupe, was killed Nov. 30 when she was struck by a train while walking on the tracks.

There’s a park across the street from the apartments in which Alyssa lives with a friend, “but really, depending on which people are around,” she says, “it may not seem so welcoming to families and others.”

Alyssa’s friend Mossie, 18, talks about the stark reality of life in the neighborhood: “There’s been shootings and stabbings and people getting beat up just left and right everywhere and basically the whole Merced is just going down like that.”

The segment does note a couple of bright things about south Merced.

“Some of the older people that know the area a bit more look out for youngsters to some extent,” Alyssa says. And Bear Creek is her place of refuge, with “a specific spot I like to come to a lot just to get away from everything, just to hear myself think over all the commotion of my neighborhood.”

Angel, a senior at Le Grand High School, also finds the good in his segment. He says the community has “a lot of farming, people work hard.” His lens shows the mill, “the tallest building in Le Grand,” and takes in the sign noting the high school’s Bulldog football team: Back to Back Section Champs 2010, 2011. Angel says the community is “like a big family.”

The young videographers’ work is funded by Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year project of The California Endowment. It began in 2010 and targets the health of residents in 14 areas throughout California. Southwest Merced and east Merced County make up one those areas.

Michelle Xiong, youth coordinator for BHC for Southwest Merced/East Merced County, United Way, worked with the teens in making the video.

They were chosen among teens who attend Building Healthy Communities meetings that partner with the Youth Leadership Institute, according to Xiong. They learn about responsibility and brainstorm ways to improve their neighborhoods.

An exercise at a recent meeting sounds simple — a discussion about ridding a dog of fleas. The teens come up with obvious ways to eradicate the pests, Xiong says: shampoo, a visit to the vet, shots. “Then it gets bigger than that,” she continues. “The dog still lives in the house where the fleas are. It might not just be the dog’s fault” but come from the animal’s surroundings.

“It leads them to question their own upbringing,” Xiong says. “These meetings aren’t just meetings.” The teens are deciding which actions will improve their environments, she says, “peeling back the onion to get to what they really want to tackle.”

As they work on leadership skills or hosting events in their neighborhoods, Xiong says, “They’re starting to see, ‘We are young people but we do have a voice.’ ” They’re being challenged at every meeting.”

And gaining in confidence and life skills, the teens say.

“Before, I wanted to be someone else I wasn’t,” Angel says, but now has learned from the leadership meetings “to follow myself.”

Anthony’s starting to feel as if the Beachwood Franklin neighborhood that was also home to his parents as kids can change. He’s attending leadership meetings and the group is planning a cleanup event in his neighborhood.

“I have a feeling something good could come out of this.”

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