By Rony Contreras

This June, “Summer Night Lights” kicked off its eighth year in Los Angeles. The program, which has had success in reducing crime rates in high-risk neighborhoods, is now offering 122 different activities such as Poetry Nights, Basketball, Summer of Learning, and Zumba at 32 different parks around Los Angeles. In Boyle Heights, the program is available at the Costello Recreation Center, Ramona Recreation Center and Ramón García Recreation Center.

Summer Night Lights (SNL) keeps certain city parks open later hours during the summer for kids ages 7 through 15, keeping them entertained with numerous activities, such as mosaic art, gardening and sport clinics. The program began in just eight parks when it opened under then Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city’s Gang Reduction Youth Development (GRYD) Unit in 2008.

Councilman José Huízar, who has been a key supporter of Summer Night Lights since its inception, says the program has benefitted different neighborhoods, including Boyle Heights.

Summer “is the easiest time for the younger ones to get into trouble when they could easily be doing something positive,” Huízar says. “The biggest thing about this program is the evening hours, when a lot of other services are not available.”

The program, which keeps parks open until 11 pm from late June to early August, allows teens to be productive, have fun and stay off the streets. Summer Night Lights allows families to come together, take part in activities and eat. Food is a big part of the program. During the 2014 SNL event, over 560,000 meals were served. Other activities include skateboarding, popcorn and movie nights, intervention and mentoring.

According to the GRYP unit, during the 2014 summer event, gang-related crimes in the neighborhoods served by the program decreased by 15.4 percent, compared with 2013.

The Summer Night Lights Program also employs over 1,000 youth from ages 14 to 24 and the number has been increasing since 2008, when only 275 were employed. Youth from the area are given preference and can earn $11 to $13 an hour, depending on experience. Responsibilities range from grilling and serving food to organizing and leading activities.

Boyle Heights Beat spoke to Daniel Calderón, a 19-year-old Wyvernwood resident, who is working in the program for the third year at Costello Park. Working in the Summer Night Lights program is more than just a summer job, he says.

BHB:  Why did you begin working in the SNL program?

DC: I started working at SNL first off because I was at a situation where I needed to stand on my own two feet. Once I started working at SNL, I understood it was so much more than that. There was so much community work that goes onto it, so much love for the community.

BHB: What is the overall goal of the program?

DC: The overall goal is to reduce gang activities and reduce the violence. They gave us scenarios where they tell us that someone is smoking or might be tagging; someone might be armed. There can be a fight going on. They teach us how to handle the problem. We have GRYD members on site who are professionally trained to deal with situations. They tell us to go to the authorities and keep the kids safe.

BHB: What kind of training did you receive?

DC: The training prepares us for situations that might occur. They also broke down everything you had to do, so we can know what to expect. In the cooking [training], they tell you that you need to wear gloves and that meat needs to be at a certain temperature. One scenario they give you is when your station isn’t working out, and that’s when they teach you on compromising or to think of ways to attract community members to your station.

BHB: How popular is the program at Costello park?

DC: Our most popular activity is arts and crafts. One day last year in arts and crafts, we had 300 kids. We have served up to 700 plates in one night. On a slow day, it’s 200 kids a night. Wednesdays and Thursdays are the most crowded days.

BHB: Why have you returned to work in the program?

DC: I return every year to work at SNL because of the community. When I started working at SNL, I was a junior in high school. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started thinking what do I like to do, what I am good at. That’s when I got the idea when I was working last year to major in child development.

BHB: What do you think about the SNL program as a whole, and what does it do for the community?

DC: I think SNL should be around forever.  It should be in all parks and should expand to all cities. It shouldn’t only be in the summer. [SNL] helps make a strong community — forming bonds with one another and getting to know everyone, which allows you to have a voice.

José Barber and Clarissa Díaz contributed to this story.

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Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas is a Senior Editor at Boyle Heights Beat, where he mentors teenage journalists, manages the organization’s website and covers local issues. A veteran bilingual journalist, he's...

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