Rio Puerco Community Center puts youth on positive path

By Terry Bowman
Navajo Times

FOR DEFIANCE, June 27, 2013

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(Times photo – Ravonelle Yazzie)

TOP: Alex Froom, executive director of Rio Puerco Community Center, highlights the success of the center on Friday in Fort Defiance. The center, which has been open since 2011, is located at the Rio Puerco housing area.

SECOND FROM TOP: Daniel Ensign, left. who works at the Rio Puerco Community Center, interacts with a local community member at the community center's garden on Friday at the Rio Puerco housing are in Fort Defiance.

L ike many kids across the Navajo Reservation, Shaun Harvey was on a destructive path.

That was until he discovered the Rio Puerco Community Center, which is part of the Rez Refuge Ministries and a center that gives youth, who would likely otherwise get into trouble, more opportunities and new experiences.

Since the opening of the Rio Puerco Community Center in 2011, Executive Director Alex Froom has been hard at work with kids in the area offering lessons in leadership, making sure each kid feels loved by keeping them out of trouble and organizing activities such as gardening and sports.

"The purpose of the Rio Puerco Community Center is to create alternatives to destructive behaviors and oppressive systems in Fort Defiance, especially in the Black Rock Acres and Rio Puerco neighborhoods," said Froom.

Attests Harvey, "It's changed me a lot. I got into smoking when I was little and I used to steal a lot, and drink a lot. I don't smoke or drink now because of this place. I've gone on a more positive path that I like."

According to Froom, by encouraging the kids learn three things that make up the center's mission, youth are beginning to make strides in a positive direction.

"First, we want them to know that there are adults in the neighborhood who love them and want them to feel safe," Froom said. "Second, we want them to feel like they can do something creative and beautiful in their neighborhood. Finally, we want them to become leaders, take on leadership (roles), even if it's leadership in school or in the garden."

For graffiti artist Clay Singer, 18, of St. Michaels, Ariz., his life changed for the better when he was offered a position working at the center.

"I got in trouble for graffiti. Now I do art more positively, not illegal art like going up to something and spraying (it) with a spray can," Singer said.

Since the center's opening, members of the center believe it has been successful in working and reaching out to kids in need.

"We're successful in communicating to kids that they're loved and that they're valuable. I also think we do a good job at giving kids something creative to do," Froom said.

A decrease in crime

According to Froom, since the community center opened, the crime rate in the Rio Puerco and Black Rock Acres neighborhoods have gone down drastically.

Though Froom has no statistics to prove crime has decreased, local skater and resident of the Rio Puerco neighborhood, Michael Martinez, 21, will tell you that the neighborhood does seem a lot safer.

"Before the center, a lot of kids didn't have much to do – just tag buildings, cause destruction in the community," said Martinez. "But now the center has opened the crime went down ..."

Daniel Ensign, 23, a full-time employee at the center has also seen a change.

"I'd say yes," said Ensign when asked about the decrease in crime. "I know every single person that walks by the building (and) I don't think anyone has tagged this place in the last two years. That's a big deal because people tag a lot of stuff around here."

After graduating from Trinity International College in Chicago in May 2012, Ensign has been living and working full-time center with kids and teaching them how to be more involved in the community.

"We're just part of the community, that's why I started living out here, I love being a part of this community, I love the culture, the land and the people," Ensign said.

Of the actual building that exists today, Martinez said construction of the house began in 2009 and many neighborhood kids, including him and his friends, jumped at the task to renovate the house into what is now the center.

"Me and a few guys from around here helped build the place in 2011," said Martinez. "It was a fun learning experience. It showed the neighborhood kids workmanship and team work."

Added Ensign, "A lot of the teens from around the neighborhood helped build this place … we've got them involved, giving them ownership that way it's their community."

The future

As the Rio Puerco Community Center staff set goals for the future, they hope to get more adults involved.

To keep the neighborhood safe, the staff also hopes to implement a neighborhood watch program, according to Froom, adding that parents of the community are being asked to help in organizing, executing and maintaining the program.

"The primary concern in the neighborhood is primarily safety," said Froom.

As for the future, Ensign said he's seen enough to know that he is needed exactly where he is now.

"I've had a few teens come up to me and say, 'I don't know what I would be doing if this place wasn't opened for me to come here every day,'" Ensign said. "It's comments like that that help us realize that we are doing something positive for them."