In a gritty corner of the northeast San Fernando Valley, where poverty and violence have been a way of life for generations, tens of thousands of families are being offered the promise of a brighter future.
There are similar signs of hope in east Hollywood, where high unemployment and dropout rates have created desperate conditions for adults and children alike.
Thanks to a $30 million federal grant that could be matched with private donations, the nonprofit Youth Policy Institute has launched an ambitious initiative to bring hope to the so-called Promise Neighborhoods. Over the next five years, the 30-year-old organization will invest in education, job training and technology programs in an effort to break the cycle of poverty in those communities once and for all.
"This is not just a single program, and it's not just a specific department addressing the issue," said Iris Zuniga, YPI's chief operating officer. "This involves the whole system and all its institutions."
As envisioned by YPI and coordinated by Zuniga, the city and county of Los Angeles will partner with Los Angeles Unified and philanthropic groups in creating a network of 65 programs to support youths and their families in Pacoima, San Fernando and the Little Armenia area of Hollywood.
There will be health-care and preschool for the youngest kids, for instance, and tutoring and enrichment programs for their older brothers and sisters. High school students will have access to academic and college counselors, with a focus on keeping them in school and on track for college or the workforce.
Parents and families will be able to take English classes, earn their high-school diploma, get job training and help in managing household finances.
And for everyone, there will be a focus on wellness -- from vaccines to a healthy diet and exercise.
The wide-ranging programs were developed strategically during an 18-month planning process that included a poll of 1,200 residents in the low-income communities. The organization found that more than half of the adults in Pacoima lack a high-school diploma, and two-thirds of K-12 students perform below grade level. Nearly everyone surveyed in the Northeast Valley community said public safety and gang activity were their top concerns.
YPI found out in December that it had received the grant, and the first $6 million installment became available in July.
"There is a sense of urgency in what we're doing," said Zuniga, an Arleta native. "These are families in crisis, I want to open up the policies that are in place and see where we can create change."
With the goal of helping 18,000 kids a year, the programs will be offered at 19 Los Angeles Unified and charter schools, including the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media, a technology-focused pilot school that YPI opened in 2010 on the grounds of San Fernando Middle School.
"This will be a laboratory of education reform, with high-quality options for all of our families," said YPI Executive Director Dixon Slingerland. "We will serve or try to serve every youth who lives in the neighborhood."
Services will also be offered at city YouthSource and neighborhood centers and dozens of satellite facilities, like the storefront computer labs YPI operates in Pacoima and San Fernando for anyone who wants to use them.
"Our kids too often face gaps in the support they need because of a lack of coordination among services," said Mayor Eric Garcetti, who worked on the Promise Neighborhood grant while representing Hollywood on the City Council.
"The Los Angeles Promise Neighborhood is a holistic approach that provides a full range of services -- from cradle to college and career -- to help our kids and make our city more economically competitive in the future."
The Valley programs will be administered out of an office building YPI is renovating on Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima, not far from San Fernando Gardens, a public housing project for low-income residents. The office will also house classrooms, an art studio, computer lab, college-counseling center and a "baby university," where moms can bring their kids for playtime.
Much of the renovation work is being done by residents of "The Gardens," giving the young men and women a glimpse of the possibilities awaiting them. For 19-year-old Juan Reyes, it was the chance to pursue his dream to of being a "positive muralist," with a colorful project he designed entitled "Believe Yourself."
Putting the finishing touches on his mural, Reyes talked about his desire to get away from The Gardens, where he said that most of his friends are "either in jail or dead.
"I love doing art, painting. I believe that with art, you can change people's perspective on what they look at, and that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to give back to my community." ___