Photo courtesy of John Flores
As told to Claudia J. Gonzalez
Editor’s Note: John Flores, 30, is a resident of South Merced, UC Merced student and volunteer at the McNamara Park Youth Center. A self-described community advocate, Flores shared how his own experiences growing up near McNamara Park have driven him to give his time at the Mac, an entirely volunteer-run youth center. As the Mac fights for funding to remain one of the only safe places for youth in South Merced, Flores asks city leaders to recognize the power of investing in youth. For more information about the campaign to #BackTheMac, see our story here.
I’ve been volunteering two days a week at the Mac. I give my time because I really care about the community. I know the direct experience of the children growing up around here. I was them.
When I was a kid, I remember the centers at McNamara and Stephan Leonard parks being the heart and life of the community. The Mac was so beautiful. I swam in the pool, watched my mom play softball and spent my weekends there. I remember the Mac center being staffed by Parks and Recreation workers.
Growing up in the neighborhood, I also remember feeling that the city did not care about me, and I think the kids growing up in South Merced [today] feel the same way. We are taught that our lives will only revolve around gangs, drugs, and incarceration, and the city does little to counteract this.
There are not a lot of places for kids to go to, especially in South Merced. We have inadequate transportation, and on top of that, for many years, the city has refused to significantly invest in recreational and developmental activities for youth.
I had a kid at the Mac tell me that I was the first person he met that went to UC Merced. He didn’t even know what it was or that there was a university in the city. To me, that is very disturbing.
There is a lot of denial regarding the division of our city. The city caters to the privileged wealthy people who live on the Northside. I don’t see unity in Merced. The city council pretends they care about South Merced, but the that part of the city is always overlooked.
The city has money to invest in dog parks for North Merced, but they cannot invest in a youth center in South Merced?
At a recent budget meeting, one of the student volunteers told the city council that if you want to prevent gangs, you have to invest in our youth and in prevention, not in law enforcement. He stressed the importance of backing the Mac, but the city council didn’t seem interested.
That young man is right. If we want to prevent gangs and crime, we need to support our youth and the organizations who are trying to make a difference in the community, like those housed at the Mac center.
We need action from the city, and for it to stand up and take ownership over the community.
The programs at the Mac have already invested so much time and energy. They are gaining momentum, so if the city does not invest in their efforts, they are doing a disservice to the community.
Unfortunately, the fate of the Mac depends on funding. I can’t stress enough how important it is for the community to get involved. I feel our city council is not taking us seriously now, but if we organize and work together, they will have to notice and start listening to us.
I can connect to the youth of Merced because we’ve lived some of the same experiences. That’s why I back the Mac.