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May/June response: The Chance to Choose

Toberman Neighborhood Center in San Pedro, California, offers families the support they need to build hopeful futures.

by Nile Sprague, with Tara Barnes

Toberman Neighborhood Center was founded in 1903 by former Los Angeles mayor James Toberman and his wife Emma. Then called the Toberman Settlement House, it was entrusted to the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1904. Today Toberman continues its relationship with the women’s organization of The United Methodist Church, United Women in Faith, as a national mission institution supported by members’ Mission Giving.

Originally located on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, the Woman’s Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, moved the growing center to San Pedro in 1937. Throughout its history it’s also been known as the Homer Toberman Deaconess Home and Hospital (named after the Tobermans’ son), Homer Toberman Clinic and Settlement and the Homer Toberman House, offering services such as housing for working women and immigrants, hospital care, a dental clinic, sewing and Bible classes, boys’ club, Head Start, job and language training, drug rehab, recreation and more.

Toberman continues to grow and adapt to its community’s changing needs. Today’s programs include gang prevention and intervention, youth development, and community resources such as parenting classes, tax preparation help, legal services, computer and financial literacy classes and case management. The center also offers a food pantry and thrift store and offers a grab-and-go meal Monday through Friday.

Faith and partnership

Darlene Kiyan was the center’s executive director at the time of my visit. She worked for a fitness company in Japan that transferred her to Los Angeles, where she then worked for the YMCA of Greater Los Angeles for 11 years. Toberman was her first experience with a faith-based institution. She called the support from the community “amazing to see.” In January 2022, Kiyan became the executive director for St. Barnabas Senior Services. Lorenzo Hernandez is Toberman’s current acting executive director.

A Canadian immigrant, Kiyan grew up in a small town and was the first in her family to obtain a college degree. She also, as she describes it, lost a family member to gang violence and is a survivor of domestic violence. Toberman’s mission was one she could get behind.

“The programs of the Toberman Neighborhood Center take a holistic approach to our members,” she said. “What are the needs that they have? Whether they’re in kindergarten, whether they’re a senior, whether we need to support them on their whole journey, we really look at those different parts of their lives and how we can fill in the gaps of services they’re not getting elsewhere.”

Staff and program participants work together and with partner organizations to make plans to achieve goals.

“We don’t want to prescribe to our members,” Kiyan said. “We want to work with members and families individually so that we can come up with solutions together.”

A place to grow

One of the youth development programs is free afterschool for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Among its activities are tutoring, recreation, healthy snacks, art, science and more. It works to improve self-esteem and connect students to people and resources that can help them achieve their goals in life.

I spoke with Yvette Arteaga, program leader for Toberman’s afterschool program, while children played in the gymnasium behind her. She works with the students in kindergarten through 5th grade. The children had just recently returned to an in-person program after attending virtually as a COVID-19 safety precaution.

“I plan lessons, I make sure the kids are getting some snacks. I also make sure that they’re doing homework,” Arteaga said. “Some of the lessons that we do weekly are science, arts and crafts and, recently, cooking. We do that on Fridays.”

The program is available from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Children have a safe space to spend time with friends and find enrichment. Arteaga likes that the children know she’s a source of support.

“It’s the personal connections I make with some of the students. I know they’re really young, but they notice things. They’re really smart,” she said. “I’m here to serve the kids. So as long as they’re good, I’m good.”

The program for older students is called the College to Career Center for students in middle school through high school looking for career guidance. In addition to help preparing for exams, filling out applications, finding financial aid and scholarships, it also offers a place to do homework, receive tutoring, make art, participate in workshops and cultural programs and play in the game room.

Joan Rosales has been attending the College to Career program since he moved to San Pedro when he was in 6th grade. He is now 15. He likes the environment and that it’s a place to move freely, he said.

“I come here to do my homework. And the staff are great. They also have nice activities and events,” he said. His parents speak only Spanish, so sometimes there’s a language barrier when he needs homework help. Many of Toberman’s staff are bilingual. Rosales says he is able to receive homework help and participate in activities. He spoke about the recent harvest festival and a field trip to Placita Olvera, a Mexican marketplace known as “the birthplace of Los Angeles.” He also participated in the summer camp and Toberman’s Young Entrepreneurs Program teaching youth basic principles and skills to start their own businesses one day.

Rosales also likes that Toberman is a place he can get help with other life challenges as well.

“If I have some challenge in my life, sometimes I’m too shy to talk to my parents and it’s easier to talk to someone like Gabby,” he said. “I’m comfortable here coming to talk.”

Gabby is Gabriela Chavez, a junior at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She is studying family counseling and family services. She works in the College to Career program. She explained that a typical day for the program begins with quiet homework time and tutoring, then a chance to do an art activity or play in the game room. On the day I visited, the youth painted mason jars to look like leaves, and they had recently carved pumpkins. In addition to tutoring and leading programming, Chavez and other staff are happy to also provide the type of support Rosales talked about.

“We’re also here to hear them out,” she said. “For example, if a student wants to talk about something they’re experiencing at home, they come to us with the trust that we provide for them.”

Chavez especially enjoyed the summer camp and the trip to Placita Olvera. She plans to continue school for a master’s degree in social work and return to Toberman as a case worker.

Love in action

Another large activity for Toberman’s children and youth is the yearly Christmas party. Kiyan said the local United Women in Faith groups are always a big help, serving as volunteers and donating presents. During the annual parade of trees this year, local groups of United Women in Faith decorated three different trees that Toberman could then raffle off as a fundraiser to support programing. They also bought tickets and joined in the party.

One longtime United Women in Faith contribution to the Toberman Christmas party are Christmas poppers, or Christmas crackers, little tubes filled with candy and trinkets to be pulled and popped open. Pat Bushrow, a member of United Women in Faith at El Segundo United Methodist Church, served on Toberman’s board and started the project, recruiting her congregation to join. The center has been receiving these poppers from the El Segundo group for decades now.

“Every year the kids look forward to these crackers,” Kiyan said.

Case Manager Leslie Anaya spoke about how large the Toberman toy drive is and how important it is to so many of Toberman’s families. The donations from members of United Women in Faith are invaluable to help make it happen.

In addition to financial donations, local members also contribute to the food pantry and volunteer for other

United Women in Faith member Eutha Hankinson currently serves on Toberman’s board of directors. Kiyan also said she appreciated the training offered by the national office of United Women in Faith and the opportunity to connect with other directors of national mission institutions across the country.

Lifelong support

Anaya spoke about the other programs Toberman offers hoping to help families, including rental assistance, utilities assistance, tax preparation, food pantry and thrift store, Thanksgiving baskets, financial coaching, help with government paperwork, connecting them to resources, senior programs and more.

“We’re impacting people’s lives. This is not something small that we’re doing here. We’re helping people stay in apartments, we’re helping people keep the lights on,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re helping people not go to sleep hungry.”

Anaya is one of four case managers who each work with around 600 clients a year. She likes that Toberman is a place people can turn to for support throughout their lives.

A child that comes to the toy drive can join in the afterschool and summer programming, get help applying to college, come back and volunteer or tutor or receive support as they begin adult life, with parenting and other adult classes, homeless assistance, legal help and more.

Sylvia Maese started participating in Toberman programs when she was a young Girl Scout. Now, at age 76, she’s a regular in the seniors program. She grew up at Toberman, in afterschool programs and teen club. Her mother was a part of Toberman as well and used to pull Maese out of school to join her on trips to serve as translator since she didn’t speak English.

When Maese had children, she enrolled them at Toberman as well. She’s joined sewing classes, led exercise classes, enjoyed parties and potlucks, and currently serves as a secretary of the seniors club.

“I take minutes every week. I’m what they call a Sunshine Lady: I call up the people who are sick, make sure we send sympathy cards and get-well cards. I lead the prayer before the meeting starts,” she described. She even got her husband involved when they needed someone to make the coffee. “It’s fun. It’s something to do. This brings you together with friends. Toberman has always had a place in my heart. I’ve been here forever.”

Offering a different path

One of Toberman’s most successful programs is the gang prevention and intervention program. The prevention program focuses on at-risk youth ages 10-15. The free services include case management, mentoring, individual and family counseling, youth meetings and educational, cultural and recreational activities. The goal of the intervention program is to move young people beyond gangs, using evidence-based intervention practices and offering wrap-around services for the whole family, including crisis intervention, safe passage, positive role models, counseling, reentry services and employment support.

David Jones is the prevention program manager at Toberman. He’s been with the center for 10 years.

“I grew up in a community that didn’t have a lot of services. We didn’t have programs catering to what we needed,” he said. “Being able to give back, it means a lot to me, because I know what these kids are missing. If I had somebody to help me along the way, it would have stopped me from doing a lot of the things that I got into.”

Jones lost his mother as young child, then two years later his father died. He was raised by his sister. They lived in the projects.

“Growing up in a project was tough, man. It was kill or be killed. Survival of the fittest. That’s all I knew. I learned how to steal. I learned how to do all kinds of things that I shouldn’t have been doing,” he said. “But when I look at where I am now, I say that those things led me to where I am now.”

In his work he tries to dispel some of the toxic notions of masculinity he grew up with, making sure the young men he works with see him show emotion, show love. He understands, too, that the youth are faced with hard choices, and gang membership provides some of what may be missing in their lives. Homework is less appealing, he noted, than a chance to make a few dollars, buy some groceries, feed little brothers and sisters while “mom is busting her back at work.” Toberman tries to provide the support families need to give young people the freedom of choice.

This partnership, along with other national mission institutions across the country, is one way United Women in Faith helps disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline to help give children the chance at thriving futures. Jones even pointed out the similarity in structure of low-income schools and housing complexes to prisons.

“They look exactly the same,” he said, referencing gates and fences and security checks. “The structures are designed for a reason: To get you familiar with where you’re going to be,” he said. “Oh, it’s heavy. It’s hard to believe that someone would actually create this chaos, and then hold us and blame us for it.”

Toberman shows members of all ages a different future.

A beautiful impact

The center has grown quickly recently, and many staff are new, being welcomed into the Toberman family, which includes longtime staff and even-longer-time members. The staff work together across programs to ensure members can get what they need. Building community and building up community is something Toberman takes seriously.

While in college, Prevention Manager Jocelyn Licano lost a friend to schizophrenia. Her mother took English-as-a-second-language classes at Toberman while she was growing up, and Licano participated in the children’s programs.

“I really wanted to do something to help others who were in my friend’s shoes,” she said. “I grew up in San Pedro. This is my community. It really means a lot for me to work here.”

Anaya agrees.

“It’s like a whole revolution, where we’re just all giving love and assistance to each other,” she said. “It’s going to be a beautiful impact.”­    

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist based in Santa Rosa, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.

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