GAIL WHITE Youth camp director helps kids to beat the odds
Every morning at 8 a.m., Eddie Encarnacion arrives at 1000 South Ave. on the city's South Side to open the building for the OCCHA Youth Services Program.
The Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana, the city's primary Hispanic social service organization, has been in existence for nearly 30 years. Eddie has been running the youth program on South Avenue for five.
Though the organization focuses on the Hispanic community, it serves people of all races.
At 9 a.m., children begin arriving.
OCCHA sponsors a summer day camp for needy children and families.
Monday through Wednesday, children 6 to 12 come to the small, one-story building. Thursday and Friday is reserved for teen-agers.
Eddie is never certain how many children he will have.
It doesn't matter. He welcomes them all.
In the past: Five years ago, Eddie would have been found in New York City, working as a protection officer for New York University.
Today, he is a protection officer of a different kind -- protecting young children from the dangers of gangs, drugs and alcohol.
"There are no kids in gangs here," Eddie said firmly. "If I find one in a gang, I try to get him out."
By 9:30 a.m., breakfast is over. The children clean up and have a few minutes to play.
At 10 a.m. sharp, the lessons begin.
Iris Rosa, a teacher from the Youngstown Board of Education, conducts class.
With materials provided by the school board, Iris works on courses to prepare the children for the state proficiency tests. A certified Spanish teacher, she teaches language and Hispanic history to the children as well.
Ariana "Anna" Perez, 10, likes that part of the OCCHA Summer Camp the best. "I like learning how to speak Spanish," she said, smiling.
Her brother, Alex, 11, feels the same way. "You get to learn things about Spanish and the culture and to be proud of your heritage."
Playing games: Eight-year-old, Javier Roman, has a different idea of fun. "I like Foosball, pool and the computers," he said with a wistful smile.
At 11:30 a.m., Javier gets his wish. Play time is until noon.
To me, a room full of 40 children with one Foosball table, one pool table, one Sony PlayStation system and five computers is an equation for chaos and arguing.
Not at OCCHA's Youth Center.
Eddie laughs as I stand in amazement at the friendly, happy, sharing atmosphere.
"They know the rules," he said. "If they misbehave, they get a timeout. If they do it again, they stay home tomorrow."
Nobody wants to stay home tomorrow.
Time to eat: At noon, Eddie blows a whistle and all the children sit down at tables. Time for lunch.
I sit down to talk with Brian and Derek Gonzalez. "What do you like best about summer camp?" I asked.
They seem at a loss for words.
"This is the first day for these two," Eddie explained. "They come to our after-school program, but they haven't been here all summer. I saw them up the street today and told them to come."
Eddie shares the story in a very nonchalant and matter-of-fact manner. I can tell he has done this before. He's like an OCCHA evangelist.
When summer is over, Eddie's beat becomes the schools. He checks up on "his kids."
"In five years, not one kid has failed at school," he said proudly. "We've helped a lot of kids in this neighborhood."
Growing up and out: The program has outgrown the small building on South Avenue. OCCHA has bought a new facility a few miles away on Shirley Road.
"We're working on getting transportation," Eddie said, a concerned look in his eyes. "I don't want to lose these kids."
If his heart had wheels, he'd carry a busload.
XDonations to OCCHA Youth Programs can be made by calling (330) 744-1808.