Former gang member takes back his streets

You would never think twice about playing tetherball, but in Downtown Fresno, there aren't many safe places for kids like 10-year-old Lupe, to play.

"I like playing tetherball" Lupe said. "And hide and go seek."

So, where is Lupe playing?

"Martin Park."

"It's like a place where kids could make new friends," 9-year-old Araceli said.  

"Sometimes, we play basketball," 7-year-old Lirio said. 

Lupe, her sister Lirio and friend Araceli, are just some of the neighborhood kids who come to Martin Park every day. 

"It's a safe place here, and a safe environment and a safe haven," First Presbyterian Church Janitor Oscar Rodriguez said.

The park is actually an old house, on a small piece of property, with some apartments in the back. It's located in the Lowell Neighborhood.

"The house comes with kids," Rodriguez said.

That's what former owners, Mr. and Mrs. Martin Park, told Rodriguez when they offered to sell Rodriguez the property.

"I grew up in this neighborhood with a lot of abuse, a lot of hurt," Rodriguez said.

His dream was to move his family out of the crime, out of the violence, but Rodriguez and his wife sat down on a bench, where this one is now.

They prayed.

"I feel like God brought me back, so I'd be able to see those things when a child is hurting, or when there's a need, that I'd be able to meet it."

Rodriguez took his task to heart, building this side yard into a park, of sorts.

The windows along the front, and side of his house are broken.

It's because of all the basketball games.

"Been broken three times, it's gone from having a piece of plexiglass, to having the window replaced twice," Rodriguez said.

There are also soccer games.

"Our whole front yard is a soccer court."

And homework help.

That happens, in this makeshift community room, in one of the apartment buildings at the back of the property.

It's filled with donated books, craft projects and old computers.

"If there's never an opportunity, then a kid goes through life as I went through life," Rodriguez said. "Thinking that, it wasn't going to be possible." 

Rodriguez knows the streets. He joined a gang early in life because he says, a gang, meant belonging.

"Only person that's out here that's being an example is a drug dealer," Rodriguez said. "And what kind of example is that."

The Lowell Neighborhood is part of City Councilman Oliver Baines's district. Baines understands the history here.

"Over the last, you know, couple of decades, it had some challenges you know, gangs and violence," Baines said. "When I was a police officer, I spent a lot of time in there." 

Baines also understands the challenges throughout his district, from Downtown Fresno, to the Tower District, to Lowell.

"But what's happened, is the residents have taken that area back," Baines said.

Now Rodriguez, is fighting a new fight in his own streets, not for territory, but for these kids. He takes them on trips, hosts events at the park, all with money he doesn't have.

That's where north-Fresno resident and attorney Matthew Dildine comes in.

"My head exploded, because I saw all this potential of this place," Dildine said. 

Dildine was struggling with inconsistencies in Fresno.

It's the food capital of the world and a place with countless churches, but many related problems.

"So most food, but most hungry people," Dildine said. "Most churches, most Christians, yet the most brokenness, the most poverty.

"What I really wanted to see was, was community change."

Dildine was asked to meet Rodriguez, to help turn the park, into an official nonprofit.

"Oscar has the tattoos of a former gang member that have been transformed by the blood of Christ, that now speak to a neighborhood, and speak to the kids in the neighborhood, in ways I will never be able to," Dildine said. 

Dildine, has the money and connections, to help fund that change.

"Bring together the doctors, the great teachers to come in here to help figure out tutoring programs, the people who have access to food distribution, people from the food bank," Dildine said. "And combine those to allow us to be lead, by a janitor from First Presbyterian Church."

Now, the men have a list of to-do's. New turf for the kids, better play equipment and volunteers willing to give their time.

"Let's not treat the symptoms of poverty, let's actually try and change a neighborhood," Dildine said. 

Rodriguez says, he wants to give these kids the hope, that saved his life, showing them, drugs, alcohol, gangs, don't have to be their future.

"That's an awesome experience, to be able to help change a generation that sometimes I felt, I was helping to destroy," Rodriguez said.

And maybe, that truth, all starts here. At the makeshift park, in the heart, of "The Devil's Triangle."

Bringing kids like Lupe something hard to find.


Reporting in Fresno, Megan Rupe. 


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