Lou Calanche has returned to her community of Ramona Gardens in hopes to create positive change. Photo by Ivan Villanueva

Lou Calanche has returned to her community of Ramona Gardens in hopes to create positive change. Photo by Ivan Villanueva

Maria “Lou” Calanche, 43, believes in dreaming big. As the executive director of Legacy LA, a youth development organization focused on providing alternatives for youth in Ramona Gardens, she aims at positively influencing the community she grew up in.

Calanche lived across the street from Ramona Gardens and remembers loving the small community feel it provided her as a child. After teaching at the college level and working in political advocacy, Calanche felt compelled to return and give back to her childhood community.

In 2008, she received a grant from the city to renovate the Hazard Park Armory. Relying on old city political connections and professional networks, she was able to receive enough funding to start Legacy LA and incorporate Ramona Gardens youth and mothers into the development project.

Today, Legacy LA consistently serves over 100 high-school aged teens from the Ramona Gardens area and provides focused case-management for over half of them. Youth are taught important life skills through programs such as leadership development, tutoring, mentorship and gang intervention.

We learned more about Calanche and the plans she has for the Ramona Gardens community in the interview below.

BHB:
What is your connection to Ramona Gardens and the surrounding community?

LC:
I grew up right across the street on Murchison. I used to envy my friends because they had nice apartments. I grew up with my grandmother. All my relatives and I lived in a 2-story house on Murchison Street. My grandmother was born in San Gabriel but was raised in Juarez, Mexico. We bought that house from the owner and built a four-unit housing complex. That’s kind of how we avoided being poor, I mean we were always poor but we always had that income coming in from the rent.

BHB:
How did Legacy LA begin?

LC:
In 2007 I got a full-time job at East L.A. College teaching Political Science and I suddenly had a lot of free time. So I asked myself, “What is something really productive for me to do?” And the only thing good left for me to do was to go back to Ramona Gardens. In the past, I had done a lot of different things at Ramona Gardens, but I said to myself, “I need to go back and organize people.” I had been hearing from my mom who worked at Murchison Elementary up until five years ago, how bad Ramona Gardens residents were clashing with the police at the time. So I asked my mom if she could refer me to some mothers from Ramona Gardens and see if they would meet with me, and they did. So I told them, “Look, I know how politics work and this is my community, and if we want to make some changes we need some leaders.” So my goal was to build some community leaders through the mothers of Ramona Gardens and teach them how the system works so they could accomplish the things they wanted.

BHB:
What did you hope to accomplish in the beginning and what’s next for Legacy LA?

LC:
In the beginning, with the help of our promotoras, we conducted a survey at Ramona Gardens to see what the people wanted to change the most. And they wanted three things: better education for their kids; more after school programs for the kids; and a better relationship with the police. So we started working on changing those things. My long-term goal though, was the feeling that I can die feeling like I did something great; to see a Ramona Gardens where all kids have the opportunity to go to college, grow up in a place where they are safe, where they can develop fully, and where they can continue to live in their community.

Another long-term goal is to develop this facility. We are starting to work on the renovation of the building. We want to develop partnerships with arts organizations and theater groups. I want to have an ELAC (East Los Angeles College) satellite here and have ELAC classes here. Ultimately, I want to get a Federal grant to renovate Ramona Gardens, to create economic opportunities in there, bring a market, a full-time clinic. I want Ramona Gardens to become a model community that can be replicated in other areas; where people can see what it’s really like to transform a community.

BHB:
What is the experience for youth living in this area?

LC:
The experience we get from some of these kids is that they don’t know they live in a bad neighborhood, they just kind of learn to survive. I care a lot about this community. And all of this comes from growing up here. But most of the youth here are very sheltered. You leave the elementary and you get bussed to El Sereno, and you stick together. And then you leave middle school and then you’re bussed to Lincoln [High School] and you stick together. And they don’t venture out and meet other people and they start thinking Ramona Gardens is their whole world.

BHB:
What would you like to see in the future for this community?

LC:
We consistently serve about 100 kids. We have a core group of 50 that we are continuously advocating for. Our program’s target is about 200 kids, however, because there are about 200 Lincoln High School kids that live in Ramona Gardens. What drives me everyday is a deep belief that this work at Legacy will lead to that dream of transforming this community. I really believe that Ramona Gardens can become a wonderful place to grow up. That kids have opportunities and resources and live happy and healthy lives free of gang violence. So I am really proud that we were able to establish an organization that we know is changing lives.

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