At a little past 7:30 a.m. on July 20 at Our Lady of Victory School in Compton, a man with an old-fashioned brush cut rushed across the sidewalk to open a car’s front side door. “Buenos dias,” he said, “Good morning.”

Victor Aispuro, a volunteer, escorted two young girls from the vehicle to the close-by steps leading up to the parochial school’s cafeteria. He opened the barred iron mesh door for them. The girls, both bearing hefty backpacks, quickly disappeared inside. Today’s breakfast for MTRC (Making The Right Connection), an enrichment and anti-gang summer program, was milk and Cheerios.  

Aispuro did the same for cars and vans pulling up at the faded yellow-marked curb for the next 45 minutes. Some of the drivers seemed tentative. This was just the third day after Our Lady of Victory went into lockdown mode after a spike in local gang activities. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, which polices Compton, called them retaliation shootings that claimed the life of at least one young man recently in Compton.

nLockdown mode

“This is our 27th year, and I’ve never had to go into lockdown mode,” Dan Drass, the founder of MTRC, who still runs the program, told The Tidings. “I know that Compton is more of a hot area for violence these days than some other inner-city areas. But I just said to myself: ‘Wow! That lockdown seems kind of ironic.’

“The program is always doing these lessons on gang awareness and prevention and drug awareness. So what we’re trying to get these kids to stay away from is just blatant right there in the street. I thought it was really telling. Because over the years, the kids that we have worked with, I think, we’ve made a big difference in a lot of their lives. Many, in fact, have gone on to become teachers and principals in Catholic schools.”

After a moment, he said, “But we’ve only done well for the kids in our sphere of influence. Because there’s so many other children in South Los Angeles and Compton and Lynwood who really need help.”

Making The Right Connections is a six-week education enrichment program for children in grades kindergarten through eighth, with the first week devoted to teacher training and preparation. Besides classroom instruction, its offerings include guest speakers and presentations, athletics, all kinds of crafts and weekly field trips to the beach, museums and other interesting places. The program’s purpose is to help low-income, urban children “at-risk” of joining criminal gangs to instead choose family, church, school and community connections. It’s funded by private donors and foundations.

This summer, besides Our Lady of Victory with 200 students, MTRC is located at four other sites: Our Lady of Lourdes (East L.A, 100 students), St. Turibius/St. Thomas the Apostle (Los Angeles, 125 students), St. Philip Neri (Lynwood, 300 students) and St. Vincent (Los Angeles, 243 students). Nearly 970 children in all are enrolled. The program has five site coordinators, 38 teachers — many from local Catholic schools — and an equal number of TAs (teaching assistants), ages 14 to 21.  

Drass says the reason MTRC picked a school like Our Lady of Victory is precisely because “we’re going into neighborhoods where the gangs are prevalent, where the criminal activity is a little higher, where the drug involvement is ramped around the place. So that’s the whole point behind MTRC. We’re not going into nice affluent neighborhoods.”

The lockdown at the Compton Catholic school underscores the day-to-day reality for inner-city kids today, notes Drass. Many MTRC students have older siblings already in gangs. As a teacher at an alternative high school in San Bernardino County, he says it’s “too difficult” to change their lifestyle. That’s why the program focuses on younger children and adolescents.

“We always say MTRC provides educational enrichment, with its focus on gang prevention,” he said. “But we have a 27-year track record of no one getting hurt, not even on field trips. And safety is our number one priority. So it kind of worries me when we have to go into lockdown mode.”

nHearing gunshots

Maria Mier, Our Lady of Victory’s site coordinator, is in her 18th summer working at Making The Right Connections. She agrees it’s rather ironic for an anti-gang effort to have to take stricter operating procedures because of an increase in gang violence in the neighborhood. She says the children are already tired of being indoors, with almost two weeks left before the program ends on July 31.

“For the July 9 shooting, we were already in session,” she recalled. “And it was during MTRC time in the morning that we heard the gunshots. They were close. So we had to do the drill, of course, of dropping and every classroom being locked for 5, 10 minutes. But the school and the church are literally between the crossfires whenever these two gangs are attacking each other.”

The veteran educator says the staff has had to make some accommodations. The less walking outside the classroom, the better for safety. So guest speakers and performances are now done in classrooms instead of outside.

“But I’m glad the entire program here wasn’t shut down,” she said. “I mean, we’re still following through with the curriculum. It’s just not using the outdoors.”

Emma Ramirez, 10, and going into sixth grade at St. Albert the Great School in nearby Rancho Dominguez, isn’t all that concerned about the lockdown. In fact, she kind of enjoys it.

“I’ve got to say, I like it inside more because there’s things I can actually do,” she said. “I like doing the crafts, like art crafts. Right now we’re doing a little book. I don’t really care if we’re inside or outside. It’s fun either way.”

Miguel Salas, 11, begs to differ. “I think it’s good and bad,” said the nearly-seventh-grader. “We’re protected from anything that goes wrong. There’s police officers driving up and down the street because of the shooting.

“But,” he added, “I’d rather be outside.”