At the outside edge of a City Heights park in central San Diego, Eugene Johnson confers with fellow volunteer Melvin Harris about a teenager who is making friends with the elementary school kids that Harris and Johnson shepherd toward home each day.
The two adults in their blue vests know the students of Fay Elementary – they see them every day. But they don’t know this boy and they decide they’d like to. Harris goes over, introduces himself and extends his hand to the youth. The teenager hesitates, then turns to leave.
“I guess he didn’t want to meet anyone’s parents today,” Johnson said with a smile.
For the past six years, Johnson has been organizing and training volunteer parents to be a positive presence in their neighborhood when kids are coming to school and on their way home.
City Heights is one of San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods, with a median household income under $27,000. It is also one of the most diverse, with one of the highest immigrant populations in the nation – the 2000 census found 44 percent of the population was foreign born. That includes people from East African and East Asian countries, as well as a large Spanish-speaking population. It is one of the poorest urban neighborhoods in Southern California.
While many schools have parents volunteering onsite to manage traffic at pick-up and drop-off times, Safe Passages steps out into the community, at busy intersections and well-understood potential crime scenes, like the edges of a big park. The program is considered a pioneering program in San Diego.
Colina del Sol Park is the center of City Heights and has two of the six schools where Johnson’s volunteers stand for kids every day. The other four schools are within several miles, including Horace Mann Middle School, Rosa Parks Elementary School and Henry Ibarra Elementary School.
“It’s so important for kids to have that sense that there are adults around who care about their safety,” Johnson said as he watched a man fetch his two pre-teen daughters and walk them home. “These parents are tired and working hard and they find time to stand for this community. They want to be a part of it.”
A native San Diegan, Johnson worked for the city’s Water Department for 17 years, as his interest in martial arts advanced, particularly the Asian Pacific Islander Kenpo. His small martial arts business began to grow and he had started working with at risk kids in the training studio.
“I realized that kids need a safe haven between school and home,” Johnson said. “I’d heard about a program in the Fourth District, but it’s no longer active.”
He worked with Gompers Middle School parent Peaches Turner, who developed a similar program for the Chollas View neighborhood school, to develop the idea, then launched it six years ago.
This year, Safe Passages has 48 volunteer parents. Twenty three of them are new volunteers for a new location: the Henry Ibarra Elementary School.
“I work most days and can’t be here to see my daughter home,” said Inez Salazar Hernandez, on a rare day she was able to walk her 8-year-old daughter Adrianna home from Ibarra. “These people are making my daughter feel safe and they look after her. I am very thankful.”
The hours are relatively short and regular: somewhere between a half hour and an hour before school or after, Johnson says.
“Just to have an adult present makes a big difference,” Harris said. “We’ve all been little at one time and we all know about bullying and how kids can get each other in trouble and about the people who hang around the school encouraging kids to get in trouble.
“We’re here to protect these kids and by being here, it is happening,” he added.