South LA teens graduate from Boys to Men program

At the end of the program, the boys get their graduation certificates.

“I’ve learned that I can get a better job than what I was hoping to get and that there’s people that are going to help me stay out of trouble.” That’s one of the main lessons 13 year-old Demal Jordan Brown says he has picked up during his eight week participation in the “Boys to Men” mentoring program.

“I also learned about gangs,” says Demal. “I don’t think you can accomplish anything by being in a gang and putting yourself in harm’s way.”

Demal is one of 11 teens who graduated from the most recent “Boys to Men” program run by the non-profit On a Mission.

The eight-week course starts with lectures about the dangers of gangs and drugs and includes a visit to a prison to see, first hand, the consequences of illegal behavior. Participants are then taught about the importance of respect, responsibility and self-esteem. But most of all, they’re encouraged to think big in terms of their future. “I want to be a doctor,” states Demal.

George Karnoub, Assistant Manager, and Rosie Espinoza, Associate Support Department Supervisor of the Hyde Park Home Depot, listen to one of the applicants as he interviews for a job.

The final test of the program is a mock job interview. The plan is for George Karnoub, an Assistant Manager and Rosie Espinoza, Associate Support Department Supervisor of the Hyde Park Home Depot, a strong supporter of On a Mission programs, to interview all of the participants and grade their performance.

“We want to help them prepare,” says Karnoub. “We give them feedback and advice after we finish the interviews, so they can do a better job in a real interview.”

The kids have been preparing, but they’re nervous. They’ve done their resumés and are trying to remember the pointers they got the previous week about how to talk to a prospective employer. But have they got what it takes to get hired?

Brent West, 13, shows Darian Williams, 15, how to tie his tie, prior to the mock job interview.

As they wait their turn, 13 year-old Brent West shows a struggling Darian Williams, 15, how to tie his tie. “I just can’t get it right,” exclaims Darian in frustration. He shares that his mother has already lined up a summer job for him and that he’s anxious to turn 16. “So I can start driving,” he says. He already bought a car. It’s sitting in his parent’s garage until his birthday in September.

Even though several of the class participants admitted they didn’t want to be in the program at first, in the end, they’re all enthused about it.

“I didn’t want to come, but after the first day, I liked it and wanted to keep coming,” says Brent. “One of the things I liked best was how to get a job and dress for success.”

He’s only 13, but the small-framed Brent appears to be very focused and determined to achieve his goals. “I want to get a job this summer. I would do anything,” he says. “I can sweep the floors in a barbershop or carry boxes.” Brent wants to save money for college. He aspires to attend to Stanford or Harvard University and wants to become a computer game developer.

Home Depot managers give the boys feedback on their interviews.

At the end of the class, the Home Depot interviewers present the kids with their scores. They explain what they could’ve done better in order to secure the job. So who would’ve gotten hired if this would’ve been a real interview?

“Brent,” announces Espinoza. While some teammates clapped and congratulated him, others groaned. “I was sure I got it,” one boy said, disappointed he didn’t get picked.

They’re young. Some come from broken homes, others have troubled backgrounds, or are brought in by their parents to prevent them from hanging out with the wrong crowd. But they all have dreams. All it takes is for people to believe, trust and dedicate the time to help them evolve from boys to men.

Photo retrospective shows cultural heritage of Central Avenue

Gloria Wilson on the new Ford DeLuxe outside her and her husband’s home on Maple and 30th St, circa 1953. Contributed by Lynda Wilson.

An ambitious photography project involving South LA’s Central Avenue community hopes to show there’s more to the area than a history of riots.

Documentary photographer Sam Comen, urban planner Jason Neville and members of the Central Avenue Business Association teamed up to create a first – person photography exhibition telling the history of one of LA’s legendary cultural neighborhoods.

“Central Avenue: A Community Album,” which premieres on Saturday, showcases a curated collection of historical photographs, dating all the way back to the 1940’s, submitted by neighborhood residents as well as new pictures taken by Comen in February and March of this year.

“We collected over 800 photos from the community from over 40 individuals and organizations,” says Comen. “That’ll be edited down to 200 photos shown in the community album in addition to 40 of my photos.”

During the early 20th century, Central Avenue was a vibrant African American cultural and commercial center. Economic problems and blight dilapidated the area throughout the years, made worse by the Watts riots in 1965 and the LA riots in 1992. Comen wants to help demystify the history and the area’s new reality.

Juan Carrillo, Zena Gramajo (seated,) Mariela Godinez, and Grecia Andrade photographed at Central Ave. and 41st St. on their way home from Jefferson High School on March 14, 2012. Photo by Sam Comen.

“South LA has two main narratives: one is the intellectual and musical narrative that took place during the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s in a place that has made significant cultural contributions and the other is the riots,” Comen points out.

“Twenty years later, there’s going to be the temptation to dramatize and compartmentalize what has happened. These photos have documented the sweet moments in life. It’s important to show everyday and family life in light of the past tragic events. I want to open the discussion again with these photos. If I can broaden the conversation beyond those two narratives, then I’ll be satisfied.”

While canvassing the neighborhood in search of old photos to scan and capturing his own images, Comen discovered the area’s economy was improving.

“I didn’t know about the new Central Avenue. There’s a thriving and cohesive community there. I think it’s experiencing a renaissance.”

Demographic changes have transformed the Central Avenue community. Just like in many other neighborhoods in South LA, it has become predominantly Latino, a reality captured in this exhibit. The Community Album exhibit focuses on how cultural heritage and racial and ethnic diversity have contributed to building a thriving community.

Simon Redditt, age 105, in his apartment on Central Avenue on March 21, 2012. Now known affectionately known as “Papa Si,” Redditt has lived in the neighborhood since he moved from Memphis in 1938. Photo by Sam Comen.

With the recent closure of the California Redevelopment Agency, organizers of the exhibit felt it was necessary to take matters into their own hands to continue the revitalization of their neighborhood.

Comen says the Central Avenue business owners are attempting to bring cultural tourism to the area, through arts-based revitalization efforts like this exhibit.

“It was definitely a team effort,” acknowledges Comen. “We had business owners and people that work in the community reach out to their personal networks. We made posters telling people about the project, our team canvassed Central Avenue to speak with storeowners about spreading the word to their clientele. That’s how we ended up having so many people willing to participate. It just goes to show the cohesiveness and energy of this community.”

“Central Avenue: A Community Album” premieres Saturday, April 14, 2012 from 7:00 to 10:00 pm and will remain through Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Opening night will feature live music by a jazz quintet, courtesy of youth center A Place Called Home. Local small business owners will serve complimentary light food and beverages.

The exhibit is part of the annual Month of Photography Los Angeles (MOPLA) citywide annual initiative that showcases LA’s photography community, inclusive of commercial, fine art and photojournalism.

On a Mission: Building a brighter future for South LA youth

A group of kids traveled with On a Mission to Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of On a Mission)

Sometimes, all it takes is one person on a mission to get an idea rolling. Meet Edwin Henderson, a South LA-raised athlete who has focused his energy on building his idea: creating programs that help youth aspire to a better life.

“I grew up in this area. I went to school here. I saw the problems. I saw the need,” says Henderson, founder of On a Mission. “After college, I came back to work in social service jobs. It was important for me to try to make a difference.”

Henderson won a football scholarship to attend UC Berkeley, but left the school because he felt there was too much emphasis on his athletic abilities and not enough encouragement for him to excel academically. He returned to Los Angeles, graduating with a B.A. degree in Psychology from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“It was the best decision I made. I felt I had much more personalized attention from the professors. I was really able to focus on my studies,” he says.

On a Mission took a group of kids deep-sea fishing. For some, it was the first time ever they had experienced fishing. (Courtesy of On a Mission)

After graduating, Henderson worked with the homeless on Skid Row as a case manager at the Weingart Center. He also worked with parolees, families in need and mental health patients.

“I saw many men in their 50’s and 60’s get out of prison, not know what to do with their lives, use drugs again and go back to prison,” recalls Henderson. “I knew that if I wanted to make a difference, I needed to work with young kids.”

He founded On a Mission (O.A.M) in December 2003, but unable to secure sufficient grants to keep his initial programs going, had to put his youth programs on hold. He took a job as a manager at American Airlines, where he spent five years. He even worked at FedEx as a forklift driver.

“While at FedEx, I started working with the Hawthorne police department youth program. I knew I really wanted to work with kids. There’s a lot of negativity in this community and I wanted to change that,” says Henderson.

He was able to get funding thanks to a few solid sponsors like Home Depot and Southern California Edison, and in 2010 was able to restart his non-profit. This time, Henderson’s efforts have been so successful, that the center’s offices are now too small and he’s looking to move to a bigger location when the lease expires in December of 2012.

On a Mission headquarters on W. Vernon Ave. in South LA. (Photo: Veronica Villafañe)

“Our mission is to teach kids life skills that the school isn’t teaching them. We want to bring them awareness, build their self esteem, self respect and teach them to respect others,” states Henderson. “We have 14 and 15 year-olds getting girls pregnant, but they don’t have any skills to get gainful employment. We have to change all of that.”

On a Mission’s signature program is called “Boys to Men,” geared at 12 to 17 year old males. During the first part of the eight week mentoring and behavior modification program, the instructors talk about gangs and its consequences. After addressing that issue, the lectures cover topics that will help the kids in the future.

The boys learn basic life skills like how to get an email account, how to open a bank account, prepare a resumé, how to dress and prepare for a job interview – even how to tie a tie. They’re also taught how to set goals and to think about different career options.

Edwin Henderson (left) receives a check from Black Celebrity Giving, which named On a Mission non-profit of the year. (Courtesy of On a Mission)

“The kids enjoy the program. There are guest speakers and they learn something new every week. We try not to make it like school. We also talk about girls, dating, date rape and violence. We help them understand what’s right from wrong,” explains Henderson.

On a Mission also works with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Jeopardy Program, which targets at-risk youth. They have also partnered with View Park Middle School, where they focus on pregnancy prevention for both boys and girls.

As part of his self-esteem and leadership training efforts, Henderson takes kids on field trips. Last year, a group visited Washington, D.C. This year, another group went to Sacramento. In June, he’ll be taking at risk youths on a “scared straight” trip to San Quentin.

“Now is the time to make a positive difference with these kids – before it’s too late.”

Due to the effectiveness of On a Mission’s Boys to Men program, they get referrals from LAPD, the court, probation officers and even parents themselves.

Edwin Henderson (left) with a group of On a Mission kids. (Courtesy of On a Mission)

In January, Henderson received the Black Celebrity Giving award for non-profit of the year. But he’s determined to do more.

“I’d like to get a van to go pick up kids in places that are further away, that can’t make it here without public transportation…. My vision is to someday have our own facility, with a basketball court and pool, where we can provide a safe place for the kids,” he says.

Henderson is a firm believer of his mission statement: “What good is a man that becomes successful, but does not give back to his community? The purpose of On A Mission is not only to teach youth to become successful in life, but to also empower their community, and uplift those around them. Youth that pass through our program will become better sons, better brothers, better men, and one day better fathers. We are young, we are leaders, we are ON A MISSION.”

On a Mission is located at 3031 W. Vernon Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90008.
Office number: 323.298.4779

New Expo line to finally open to public

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, MTA board member Richard Katz and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky were on board the Expo line’s preview ride with the media.

The mayor hopped on the Expo line this morning to take a preview ride on the new light-rail train scheduled to open to the public on Saturday, April 28. The public will get a chance to try it out for free during that first weekend.

In the first phase of the line, which cost $932 million, there will be passenger service from downtown’s 7th Street Metro Center station to La Cienega/Jefferson, with an extension into Culver City to be completed by this summer. The line features a total of 12 stations with two shared by the Metro Blue Line in downtown L.A.

The second phase, which will lengthen the line 6.6 miles with seven stations and provide service to Santa Monica, is expected to be a reality by 2015.

“Everything we expand is just going to keep connecting us all over the region,” said mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during the train ride. “I remember when we had the red cars. It’s back, everybody!”

Villaraigosa referred to the PCC Streetcar service inaugurated on March 22, 1937 and which was completely eliminated by 1963. It has taken 50 years for the South LA area to see another “trolley” on its streets.

The old PCC “red cars” connected the city with the valley.

“This is a milestone. One that we’ve waited for a long time,” said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was on board during the preview ride along with the mayor and Art Leahy, the CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

Construction on the line began in 2006. The opening date has been postponed multiple times due to technical problems uncovered during the testing phase.

“Safety is the number one priority,” said the MTA’s Leahy. “During the next month, we’re going to continue making sure all systems work and that every supervisor and every operator has been properly trained for when we have customers on board.”

The ride from downtown L.A. to La Cienega is about 30 minutes, with the train running at 55 miles per hour. The trains will run approximately every 12 minutes, stopping at each station for 20 seconds.

Carolyn Kelly is one of the train operators of the new Expo Line.

The frequency of the trains will increase depending on the ridership. Leahy points out that when the Blue Line opened, it only had about 10,000 riders a day. Now, it carries about 80,000 people on a daily basis.

Carolyn Kelly, from Compton, is one of the line’s operators. A 22-year MTA veteran, she has been participating on the testing phase.

“We’ve been testing in the morning, afternoon and evening – at all hours for a year to make sure everything is safe,” she explained. “There are many safety mechanisms in the train that prevent us from going over the speed limit in the different areas of the line.”

For example, as the train nears the Farmdale station, it cannot run at a speed higher than 10 miles per hour, because there’s a school – Dorsey High School – just feet away from the station. If the operator were to exceed the 10 mph speed limit, a warning beep will sound off. If it’s ignored, the train automatically shuts down.

MTA will operate the Expo Line seven days a week from 5 am to 12:30AM. The fare for a one-way ticket will be $1.50.

You can check out video of today’s ride here:
Video courtesy MTA


South LA town hall focuses on excessive force in Sheriff’s Department

Audience listens to ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg, who detailed accounts of use of excessive force in L.A. county jails.

About 40 people showed up at a South LA town hall meeting on Thursday night to discuss the use of excessive force within Los Angeles Sheriff Department. The purpose of the event, held at the Imperial Church of Christ and organized by the Citizen Advisory Board (CAB), was also to introduce the community to a new task force made up of the department’s top brass currently dedicated to addressing the issue.

The first speaker of the evening, civil rights attorney Bradley C. Gaged, who described several cases of excessive force and abuse by law enforcement, questioned the efficacy of the unit.

“I don’t see how a task force can be of any use, because top management already knows about it,” said Gaged, referring to complaints against officers for excessive force. “The code of silence among officers is still strong…. There needs to be a strengthening of whistleblower laws.”

He also pointed out that among his biggest concerns was the fact that the majority of the cases of excessive force by law enforcement have involved African Americans victims.

Assistant Sheriff Cecil W. Rhambo, Jr. addresses the crowd as CAB chair, Dr. Sandra Moore, listens.

Attorney Michael Gennaco, from the Office of Independent Review, was quick to acknowledge that there have been many problems in the handling of inmates by Sheriff’s deputies and that conditions in the jails have been deplorable. But he said that thanks to external advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), many needed reforms have been implemented, such as reducing the number of inmates per cell from six to four and seeking to improve access to medical care within a facility.

Gennaco also said that every year, the Sheriff’s department fires half a dozen deputies for use of excessive force in jails.

That may not be enough, if you listen to the account of ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg, who worked on a 2011 report detailing abuses in L.A. County jails. “Civilian eyewitnesses told us they weren’t afraid of the inmates, but of the deputies.”

Assistant Sheriff Cecil W. Rhambo, Jr. defended his department saying: “We don’t supervise perfect people. We’re aware there are problems out there, but we’ve implemented a lot of measures to improve [our department], including town halls like this one.

Nine people from the Sheriff’s department were in attendance, including a cameraman, who recorded the meeting.

Cynthia Salomon wants to know how long it takes for an independent review process to be completed.

The audience was given the opportunity to ask questions after the speakers finished their presentations. Among the concerns: race as a factor in the use of excessive force by law enforcement.

“If I ever had a problem, I’d be scared to call for help,” says Cynthia Salomon, an African American special education teacher’s assistant. Salomon went to the town hall to get some answers about the process of independent review of cases in which excessive force was used. She says both her children were arrested in March of 2011 during a street altercation, after which two LAPD detectives fired 17 shots, injuring her 21 year-old daughter in the leg. Both are currently in jail. “I’m worried for her. She has a lump on her breast and needs medical attention, but she still hasn’t been seen by a doctor.”

Salomon’s concern over access to medical care in jails was just one of many from the crowd – and an issue which the CAB is monitoring. Dr. Sandra Moore, Chair of CAB, a faith-based community advocate group, will soon be releasing its report of the Women’s Facility in Lynwood and make recommendations on how to effectively change the current prison culture that contributes to deputy misconduct, abuses and negligence.

South LA theatre tackles education

The 24th Street Theatre production team: (front row, left to right) Debbie Devine, Sara Zinsser, Brad Culver, Eduardo Enrikez. (back row, left to right) Jay McAdams, Ben Durham, Michael Redfield, Jennie McInnis.

Every week, busloads of children arrive at the 24th Street Theatre in South Los Angeles, expecting to have fun during their much anticipated school field trip – and they will. What they don’t realize is that their visit is actually part of a program that uses theatre to teach math, history and language arts.

The children take part in “Enter Stage Right,” a standards-based arts education program that introduces students to live theatre.

“We take them behind the scenes of the magic of theatre,” says Debbie Devine, the 24th Street Theatre’s co-founder and artistic director. “They come and experience the whole process. We demystify it and make it mysterious, fun and magical.”

From the moment they step off the bus, the children are captivated by the warmth, humor and energy of the enthusiastic Devine, actors and staff. A welcome video by actor Jack Black, a supporter of the 24th Street Theatre, sets the stage for the morning program, which makes use of multimedia, comedy, improvisation techniques and student participation to enhance the learning experience.

Samantha Terrazas with her grandfather Cristóbal González were impressed by the 24th Street Theatre’s performance.

Devine and her team of actors, musicians and technicians show the children how acting, writing, music, costumes, lighting and props are essential in producing a play – while incorporating basic math concepts and vocabulary in interactive segments throughout the show.

“Listening and speaking creatively empowers you as an individual. Acting is a big component of that,” says Devine. “And that’s what theater is… the art of persuasion.”

Devine herself is skillfully persuasive in getting children – even the most shy – to come out of their shells and participate. “Doing this gives me purpose. I was a child that was critically shy,” she remembers. “One summer my mother enrolled me in a drama class and it literally saved my life. I thought I could do the same for others.”

Throughout the program that she emcees, Devine asks questions and the young audience competes to be called on for an answer. The children watch mesmerized as the troupe’s actors perform specially designed skits on stage – one of which even tackles racism and how to respond to it.

Students volunteer to answer Debbie Devine’s questions.

“I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot,” says 8 year-old Samantha Terrazas, who was part of a group visiting from the 186th St School. “I learned making a play is hard and that your feelings are important,” she said referring to the skit about racism. Her grandfather Cristóbal González, who joined her in the field trip, thought it was “very instructional. They should have more of these programs in the schools.”

The 24th Street Theatre’s Enter Stage Right Arts Education program began in 2003 in only five schools. By the second year, it had expanded to 35. It now serves over 10,000 students a year at 110 schools. The field trips run from January to June, usually two to three times a week.

At first, the 24th Street Theatre program had the financial support of the Los Angeles Unified School District. But due to severe budget cuts, LAUSD cut off funding in 2008.

“It’s outrageous that the school system is putting out a crop of kids that have no access to arts education,” says theatre co-founder Jay McAdams. Determined to provide what he considers a necessary component to education, he took the initiative of raising over $250,000 to keep the program alive.

“It’s about inspiring people,” says McAdams. “We’re getting the children in touch with humanity. Most theatres do just plays. For us, it’s what we do with the plays and the impact we have.”

Jack Black was a high school student of Debbie Devine’s theatre class. He’s now a major supporter of the 24th Street Theatre.

The field trip is only part of the program. Prior to the theatre visit, a teaching artist conducts a workshop in the school with the same group of students that will go to see the play. That same teaching artist does a post-field trip workshop in the classroom, with the same students, to summarize and reinforce the concepts learned during the show. The objective is to build trust and confidence with the children.

Husband and wife team McAdams and Devine also run the “After ‘Cool Theatre Program” for local students in the West Adams District, which brings students into the theatre from 3:00 to 5:00 pm three days a week for supervised afternoons of arts education programming. Additionally, they offer professional development workshops for teachers.

“With our plays, classes and workshops we inspire,” says McAdams. “We help people feel good about themselves. We provide social service through art.”

As part of their commitment to promote arts and theatre, they give students free tickets to evening shows, so they can return with their families. They also give people who live in the theatre’s low-income neighborhood tickets for 24 cents.

What’s the reward for the founders of the theatre?

“The kids write us, the call us, they come back and bring their families,” says Devine. “That we’re able to be literally in the lives of these children as they grow up is so wonderful. The ultimate legacy would be for the kids to bring their grandchildren in the future.”

South LA car wash workers unionize

Until a month ago, workers at Vermont Car Wash had a lot to complain about.

“The owner wasn’t paying us what was fair.We worked 10 hours and would get paid 5. We had no lunch breaks and wouldn’t get any water to drink,” says Manuel Ernesto Martinez.

Manuel Ernesto Martinez is one of the car washers that banded together to start a union at Vermont Car Wash.

The Salvadoran immigrant, who has been working at the car wash for more than four years, says a group of his co-workers finally said “enough!” and started fighting to improve their working conditions, demanding the owner pay them a fair wage.

“In one occasion all of them did a delegation to her and stopped working on a Saturday, a busy day to ask her to listen to their demands,” says CLEAN car wash campaign legal organizer Neydi Dominguez. “Through conversations, through action, community support, but most importantly the bravery and courage of the workers to really have conviction that this was the right thing to do, stay firm and continue the fight.”

Dominguez says it was this show of unity that forced owner Mi-Sook Kim, a Korean immigrant, to accept the unionization of the workers.

Thanks to the contract, they will now earn $8.16 an hour, they got a 2 percent raise, they’ll get uninterrupted lunch breaks and two 10 minute breaks, as required by California law.

Luis Nava, owner of Nava Car Wash on Florence and Hoover, one of two South LA car washes to become unionized in January of 2012.

“What we’ve also learned is that even though many owners run their own businesses, it doesn’t mean they’re responsible owners that understand the law and how they should be running the biz. Many of them, often don’t know minimum wage laws,” Dominguez points out.

Nava’s car wash also accepted the union contract. Owner Luis Nava had been a manager at the car wash for more than 7 years and bought it from the previous owner in November of 2011.

“Everybody has the right to make minim wage,” says Nava. “They work hard. We have to help them and they can help me.”

The workers will now be represented by the Steel Workers Local 675.

Thousands attend American Dream event

Homebuyers wait for assistance from NACA counselors

Armed with documents and lots of patience, thousands of homeowners braved the crowds and long waits at the L.A. convention center hoping the American Dream Home Save event would help them hold on to their homes.

For five days, Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) returned to Los Angeles to help struggling homeowners with the promise of providing them with a solution to their mortgage problems on site.

“The fear of being homeless is overwhelming. Having to pack up a house is like you’re packing up your dreams,” says Karen Johnson, who was at the convention center on Sunday to support an aunt who’s trying to stay in her South LA home.

Johnson, a special education teacher, is well aware of the frustrations of dealing with uncooperative banks. She almost lost her home after being laid off in 2009. She fell 18 months behind on her mortgage payments. During that period, she tried getting a loan modification, but she got no response from her original lender – Countrywide – and when Bank of America took over her loan, she says, she “got jerked around for a year…. I was in tears at times, with frustration,” she remembers.

“I think I was a victim. This was my American dream. I did so much to get this home. They weren’t going to get it without a fight.”

Karen Johnson (left) accompanied two aunts to a Home Save orientation session at the American Dream event on Sunday.

Johnson then heard of the NACA Home Save program. “They helped stop my foreclosure the same day.” That was in 2010. Although NACA helped her get a reduction in interest, her mortgage troubles aren’t over.

Johnson bought her house, located off Hoover and Imperial in South LA, in 2007 for $420,000. It’s now worth $239,000. “But I still owe like $500,000,” she complains. That’s because Countrywide originally set her up with a subprime interest only loan at 6.75 percent. For three years she paid a monthly mortgage of $2,500, just in interest, with nothing to the principal. In addition, the 18 months of missed payments were added back to her loan amount, she explains.

Although Johnson was able to get her interest rate reduced to 2 percent, her monthly mortgage payments are $1800. But she also has to pay $511 in private mortgage insurance (PMI). Lenders require buyers to pay for this usually high premium insurance if they put less than a 20 percent down payment towards a property purchase. PMI doesn’t protect or benefit the borrower. But it protects the lender against default on the loan.

When you add property taxes, Johnson is now paying over $2800 a month to keep her home. She’s hoping she’ll eventually be able to qualify for a principal loan reduction.

Retired couple Augusto and Rosa Avila are looking for lower interest rates for the home they’ve owned for more than 21 years in South Central LA.

Augusto and Rosa Avila are also worried about their home. The retired couple, who has been married 48 years, bought their South Central LA home in 1990 for $195,000. They’ve never been behind on their payments in the more than 20 years since they took out the loan. They’re paying $1,150 a month, but even that’s too much for them now that they’re on a lower fixed income.

“We prefer not to eat than to lose our home. What would we do without a home?” laments Rosa. “They told us when we bought the house that we would pay interest for 20 years and then only pay principal,” says Augusto in Spanish. “But I think they lied to us. We’re still paying 7 percent interest.”

The elderly couple spent over five hours at the convention center waiting for their turn to see a counselor. “We’re hoping we can get our interest reduced. Otherwise, we may start falling behind on our payments,” Rosa worries.

NACA has worked hard to get lenders to negotiate with distressed property owners. Rick Herrera, national media coordinator for the non-profit, says it hasn’t been easy. “Advocacy is among the best things NACA does. When CEO Bruce Marks started seeing thousands of foreclosures, he started talking to lenders about the need to restructure loans, but they refused…. We started disrupting shareholder meetings, showing up at the gated communities where the bank CEOs lived…. We made so much noise that we forced the banks to enter agreements with us.”

While Rick Herrera, national media coordinator for NACA, holds the mic for her, a woman shares news that NACA and BofA helped save her home.

During the American Dream Home Save events, people first get a 45 minute orientation, then they are matched with counselors who help them review their income and expenses and help them submit modification requests, and then arrange for the homeowner to meet with their lender.

Hundreds of counselors, underwriters and bank representatives were on hand from 8 am to 8 pm each day to help people on the verge of foreclosure or seeking loan modifications that would lower their monthly payments and allow them to stay in their homes.

NACA’s arrangement with the participating lenders is that they must provide a solution on site. Herrera says that if the homeowner comes prepared with all the required documents, there is an 80 to 85 percent resolution rate.

Whistles and horns sounded off throughout the day whenever a homeowner got a positive resolution, followed occasionally by rounds of clapping from other hopefuls waiting their turns. Some homeowners were able to keep their homes, but others walked away disappointed that there was nothing that could be done to help them.

While most of the people at the convention center were there to save their homes, many others were hoping to buy into the American Dream of owning one.

Homebuyers attend an orientation.

NACA also offers a home purchasing program. Prospective buyers have to go through an orientation session. They are then paired with a counselor who will help get them started on the qualifying process and let the potential homebuyer know “how much house they can afford.” The counselor sets them up with a lender (they only work with Bank of America or Citi Mortgage) and they are sent to a certified NACA realtor to find a home.

“We showed the banks we were better underwriters than they were,” says Herrera. “We showed them we were effective. Loans we underwrite have low rates of default.”

Herrera says NACA has organized 64 American Dream events around the country since 2009. Another 42 are scheduled for 2012.

Mom jailed for murder and attempted murder

The Valle home on Thursday, where well-wishers have set up an impromptu memorial. While the youngest victim died, her older sister remains in critical condition.

A South Los Angeles woman is in jail, arrested on suspicion of murder and attempted murder of her two small daughters. Lorna Valle, 32, is being held on $1.5-million bail.

Valle, who neighbors say was suffering from depression, is accused of killing her 1-year-old daughter Lindsay Stephanie Taque-Valle. Marian, her 5-year-old, remains in critical condition at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

Police say the girls’ father told them he found Valle trying to drown their daughters in the couple’s home on West 50th Street on Wednesday. The couple are natives of Guatemala, who have been living in South L.A. aproximately 10 years.

Valle (middle) with her two children, Marian (left) and Lindsay (right).

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