By Elijah McKee
March 30, 2022 (Lemon Grove) – “I only help 120 kids on the weekend – it could help thousands. Every day,” said Mark Horton, standing outside the big red doors of the Lemon Recreation Center Grove “When I lock it up, it’s done.”
In 2011, the City cut its recreation department and all recreation programs that were not cost-recovering, in an effort to save funds during a budget crisis. Current board members Jerry Jones and George Gastil were on the board then and both voted against the cuts to no avail, according to the Union Tribune.
Since then, Horton has provided Lemon Grove with its only after-school recreation center program, with its Pee Wee Sports program for children ages 2-10. His main job is as a special education teacher in secondary school.
“I love this place, it’s like my second home,” he said, describing the work he did to start his program at the facility, which included paying for each license, month of rent, insurance policy, staff member, piece of equipment and advertising spot.
Yet his idea was originally only supposed to last a year, when the City couldn’t afford the recreation center. It is now over a decade later. The recreation center is still closed and Horton is still there, having seen leaders come and go with promises to restore what was once a heavily used space.
“’We’ll be back to it 6 months from now.’ And then those 6 months never come,” he said with disappointment.
However, a new chance to change the situation may have arrived. Community requests to reopen the facility have been constant in public forums for years. They have intensified in recent months – and close collaboration with the City seems to be on the horizon.
“I met with the city manager today,” Councilwoman Jennifer Mendoza said Tuesday, March 29.
“She was very positive about doing it. With her on board, I’m really hopeful it’s going to happen.
The push to try new collaborations with the city began after resident Penny Martinez offered grant-writing assistance to the city council. Council member Mendoza responded and helped facilitate a community meeting on Friday, March 25 to develop fundraising strategies and programming opportunities. Councilor Liana LeBaron also participated, along with 20 residents.
Those in attendance expressed their hopes for restoring a positive leisure space for their children, their concerns about doing so safely, and their ideas for smartly affording it.
The structure of the effort across the city, school board, and community was deliberated, and key areas of grant writing, programming, and fundraising were identified for community involvement. Brainstorming has already begun for a launch event in June.
The Mendoza council member provided additional information about the facility by referring to a 2018 city staff report.
“The discussion comes up all the time,” she said, explaining the background to the report to ECM. “Do we have enough money to provide more leisure services.”
It was in 2018 that the city council asked staff to forecast how much it would cost to restore certain services.
“At the time, we really didn’t have the funds,” Mendoza said, recalling how a sales tax was passed and then the pandemic hit.
“It never really went away, it’s just that we couldn’t move it forward,” she explained.
Mendoza also noted that Liberty Charter High School has occupied the space for years.
“It constrained us a bit,” she admitted.
Yet the charter school is quitting at the end of that school year, a decision made by the Lemon Grove School District. The LGSD built the recreation center between two schools and has primary discretion during the school day, but the City maintains the building.
With Liberty Charter leaving the space, now is an even better time to partner with the longstanding devoted interest of residents.
At the community meeting, council member Mendoza also proposed that the recreation center be open from morning to evening on weekends for public use as soon as possible. After this first step, other programs could be added.
“After school there might be kids coming, like 3 until 6:30 maybe? It would give parents time to pick them up,” she suggested. She clarified, however, that the City would need to have an employee present for insurance purposes. The group also discussed the usefulness of trained volunteers here as well.
Councilwoman LeBaron, who has been investigating what it would take to reopen the recreation center since her time on the planning commission, also considered newly displaced Lemon Grove residents in that dialogue.
“A lot of them have small children,” she said. “That’s where, you know, they bought their first house because it’s affordable.”
“They put their roots down here, and now they also expect their children to have something to do,” she continued, recalling when she was growing up when the leisure center was open for so she can play after school.
Photo, left: Board member Jennifer Mendoza, of the center, and members of the community at the recreation center’s outdoor meeting.
An open recreation center would not only serve the young people of Lemon Grove, however. From adult sports groups to casual outings with family and friends, the facility could once again be a resource in Lemon Grove.
Jeff Galford, who lives down the street from the recreation center and attended the meeting while his son was at Pee Wee Sports, recently started a running group on the outdoor field behind the building. He has already seen the use of the pitch grow since he started racing there, and he noted that the first goal set at the meeting – indoor public use on weekends – would still make easier the growth of the community around the opening and use of the recreation center.
An idea at the meeting to organize the global effort came from resident Chris Williams, who recently helped start a nonprofit foundation called the Neighborhood Enrichment Organization (NEO). He hopes to file a joint use agreement with the city so that planning for programs related to education, health, social services and job training can begin.
“We understand that no one understands the community and its needs better than its residents. Successful change cannot happen without deliberate citizen involvement and the power of knowledge,” states the foundation’s mission statement, with an emphasis on bringing investment back into the community.
Continuing this approach could help sustain the recreation center, so people like Horton don’t have to do it alone and without support. His time running Pee Wee Sports has been successful since the 2011 cuts, but he knows many childhoods have already passed without the ability to access the leisure centre.
“I’m not going to do this forever,” he reflected. “I want it to be open to children.”
As he closed the building after the meeting, he remembered how busy the gymnasium and classrooms were. He described ball games, arts and crafts, board games, movies, study spaces, flag football leagues, big dances and festivals in the parking lot. “It was the heart of Lemon Grove,” he said.
Many of those who attended the community meeting grew up in Lemon Grove themselves and knew the potential the recreation center has to offer. With new communication between the public and the city, increased collaboration among council members, and the setting of annual city goals to come, there is now a chance to find something lost in Lemon Grove.
“Those will be my goals,” said board member Mendoza. “That’s what I’m going to put forward.”