There are two life-threatening crises facing children in the largely Hispanic city of Santa Ana: high obesity rates and pervasive street gangs that ensnare many at a young age.
In hopes of tackling both, police have created a safe place for young people to get fit.
“Our goal here is keeping these kids off of the street,” said Officer Kenney Aguilar, who oversees the Santa Ana Police Athletic and Activity League, known by locals as PAAL. “We want them to meet friends and live a positive life. Really, just have a chance to be a kid.”
The 10-year-old program has been heralded by students, teachers and police officers as a simple solution to a multi-pronged problem: using physical fitness to teach confidence, nutrition and provide a safe space that keeps kids away from gangs and builds trust with law-enforcement.
One in 3 children in Santa Ana are overweight. And 20 of every 1,000 people arrested last year were children under the age of 17, according to Orange County statistics. The county estimates that 6 percent of grade-school students are members of local gangs.
Because Santa Ana’s population is heavily Latino — 78 percent of adults in Santa Ana identify as Hispanic, as do 94.5 percent of kids in Santa Ana’s School District — those children tend to be the ones most impacted by the violence.
Children in Santa Ana don’t “have these resources readily available to them,” Aguilar said. “They [don’t] have the financial means to go out there. We provide that here. I think it’s important because there are not that many resources out there. I think we’re providing a resource, and opportunities that in many cases these kids might not have access to.”
One in 4 people in Orange County lives in poverty. At Andrew Jackson Elementary, where PAAL has run a lunchtime fitness program for the past decade, nearly 90 percent of the students receive free lunch — a threshold California sets to indicate families whose income is under 128 percent of the federal poverty line.
But proponents of the program insist: The values and skills PAAL may offer a way out.
Andrew Jackson Elementary students, for example, have won contests, including a new school gym from the Coca Cola Company valued at more than $100,000, top marks in fitness programs and outpaced 80 percent of California public schools in the annual statewide fitness tests.
Officer Tom Serafin launched Santa Ana PAAL on June 2007, as a gang prevention program that emphasizes the importance of physical activity and proper nutrition as well as academics. It was the first of its kind in Santa Ana, but one of many PAAL programs around the country — the first of which was started in New York City in 1915.
Program participants, referred to as PAALs, are asked to make a daily routine to incorporate school work with tutors as well as working on their physical fitness every day. They get access to a gym with treadmills, spin bikes, weights, full set of bars and crossfit equipment.
Abel Medina, a Santa Ana resident and PAAL fitness coach, said he tries to get the students to focus on being healthy rather than losing weight.
“Our emphasis is to build strength,” Medina said. “For now, we’re not pushing the kids too far. It’s about comfort with their bodies and movement.”
Families in Santa Ana have come to depend on the program to broaden their children’s horizons beyond what they would otherwise be able to provide.
“We are families that sometimes don’t have [resources] to give our children but [the program] does,” said Guadalupe Miguel, whose children are involved in the program. “They take our children out to places that we can’t afford to.”
Another benefit to the city is promoting face time between police officers and residents.
In a city like Santa Ana where nearly 47 percent of residents are immigrants, it can be hard for officers to push through the stigma and fear many have around engaging with law enforcement.
“That’s what we’re here to break: that fear,” Aguilar said. “We really want people to understand that we’re here to work with them to enhance and preserve the safety of the community. It’s a partnership.”
Former PAALs credit the program with keeping them out of street gangs. Some have come back to volunteer as mentors.
“You just think about it, if it wasn’t for this building where would these kids be?” program coordinator Deisy Aguayo said.
Aguayo, who arrived as a child to the United States without legal documentation, is now a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Trump announced Tuesday he would discontinue.
Aguayo said she tries to use herself as an example to other kids and teens who lack legal immigration status in hopes that it will encourage them to pursue higher education. Another mentor did the same for her when she was a program participant.
She is now a California State University Fullerton graduate.
Gisselle Ibarra — a senior-year PAAL — is a Valley High School student whose schedule consists of AP classes, varsity sports, academic clubs, and applying to Ivy League universities. She said she spends every free moment at the program giving back the support she received to help her succeed.
She said that the program taught her the value of education and, most importantly, showed her that her background does not define her.
“They taught me that even though you come from Santa Ana there’s so many things you can do,” Gisselle said, her voice breaking. “Without them, I wouldn’t I wouldn’t be anything.”