Photo by Alyssa Castro
By Claudia J. Gonzalez
MERCED, Calif. – It’s a summer afternoon and there’s a group of girls and boys playing in front of the McNamara Park Youth Center in South Merced, known locally as the “Mac.”
“Is it open?” they shout during a game of tag. “We come here every day that it’s open,” exclaimed one of the boys in the group. “It’s very fun, we like it here!”
The Mac offers a variety of programs for local youth that residents and youth advocates say are vital to the community.
Last year a coalition of local non-profits convinced the city to set aside $24,000 from a $2.6 million fund from the state – intended for renovations to the surrounding McNamara Park – to reopen the center.
The amount covered renovations and a year’s worth of basic utilities, allowing the Mac to reopen after nearly a decade. But it was only ten percent of what Invest In Our Youth had requested, leaving the center without any paid staff.
In June, Merced’s City Council rejected calls by the coalition, known as Invest In Our Youth, for additional dollars to help ensure services continue. That decision came despite a projected 3 percent increase in tax revenue for the city and a 5 percent increase in the 2015-16 budget, much of which went to local law enforcement.
For youth advocates, the decision is part of a longstanding pattern of underinvestment in South Merced’s youth. It also means that many of the services now on offer at the Mac may last past 2015.
Members of the Merced City Council did not respond to requests for comment.
When the Mac finally opened in late January of 2015, four nonprofit organizations moved in: Youth-I-Can, Lifeline CDC, Mentoring Odd Jobs Organizations (MOJO), and The Isaiah Project.
The organizations formed part of the Invest In Our Youth Coalition. Each operates the center one afternoon and evening a week and offers a variety of programming, including homework help, skills training, arts and recreation.
Earlier this year Invest In Our Youth launched the #BackTheMac campaign, pushing the City Council to invest another $29,000 to close funding gaps and pay for a part-time staff member to ensure consistent programming.
The center has no paid staff, and operates almost entirely on a volunteer-led basis.
Organizers estimate that about 17 volunteers, many of them youth, cover weekly or bi-monthly shifts to keep the center running. The Mac also relies on Spanish-speaking youth volunteers to act as informal translators for parents and other visitors.
When volunteers aren’t available, the doors don’t open.
“This happens sometimes,” says a boy standing outside the locked entrance. “Sometimes we have waited until 5:00pm and they have not opened.”
Kelly Turner of Youth-I-Can says the center’s inadequate funding means local youth sometimes miss out on valuable opportunities. “The reality is [that] if we are not here, the center is closed.”
The Mac’s leaders have been discussing plans to raise needed funds, including a food assistance program, but they say none are possible without additional money from the city.
To date the groups have relied on community fundraising to pay for materials and snacks, but those funds run out fast in a neighborhood where the median annual income for a family of five is around $21,000.
“If this center were fully funded, we could just focus on our work and serve the community,” said Rachelle Abril with MOJO. “Instead … we worry about whether we have enough money to stay open.”
Youth at the center were quick to show support.
Jesus, 13, said his mom makes him come to the Mac to get help with schoolwork. “She knows it is good for me to be here because it is a safe place.”
Others wondered at the apparent lack of support by city leaders.
“Don’t they care about us?” asked Katie Moreno, a freshman at Merced High who is a member of Youth-I-Can. “I mean look at this place, it looks like a jail, at least they could paint it!”
Moreno emphasized the center’s role as an anchor for the South Merced community.
“This place has really changed my life,” she said. “It is important that it stays open in this community, and that it grows, so that other kids can get the same opportunities I’ve had.”