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La Casita and La Escuelita − the Little House and the Little School − sound pretty tiny. But North County Lifeline’s two after-school programs in Oceanside have a huge impact.

The programs, which serve dozens of at-risk kids in the low-income Crown Heights neighborhood, prepare kids for the worlds of work and education. They also give children the tools to avoid the temptation of gang, drugs and crime.

“We provide a safe harbor in the neighborhood,” said Don Stump, executive director of North County Lifeline, which provides services in the areas of youth development, mental health, employment, housing, child abuse and domestic violence.

Here are five things to know about La Casita and La Escuelita, part of Lifeline’s Club Crown Heights program:

School-Aged Kids Are Welcome

The older kids from the La Escuelita side of the program come over to mentor the younger kids in the La Casita side of the program. Photo courtesy of North County Lifeline
The older kids from the La Escuelita side of the program come over to mentor the younger kids in the La Casita side of the program. Photo courtesy of North County Lifeline

Crown Heights, a largely poor and mostly Latino neighborhood near Oceanside High School, is known for violence and crime. Club Crown Heights offers an after-school refuge for kids though La Casita (grades K-5) and La Escuelita (grades 6-12). About 200 kids are registered in the two programs. The goal is to divert children from future trouble through creating a pro-social pathway toward school success.

“Just being in this neighborhood is difficult,” said Rhiannon Riecke, who supervises North County Lifeline’s after-school programs. “A lot of times, these kids have lived with someone who’s incarcerated, or they have a big brother who’s in a gang. We give them skills to make decisions on their own.”

One Staffer Grew Up with the Program

Santos Peñaflor, a 21 year old who serves as a mentor and aide at Club Crown Heights, may know its programs better than anyone since he took advantage of its services as a kid himself.

“I didn’t want to be the typical teenager and hang in the streets,” he said. “I started volunteering, and I wanted to be involved in the community to make it better.”

Peñaflor has been worked for North County Lifeline for two years. He helps kids with homework, gives them advice and serves as a role model.

“I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have mentorship at home and from Lifeline,” he said. “They gave me a different outlook on what I could achieve.”

Gangs Know to Steer Clear

The Crown Heights neighborhood is notorious for the heavy presence of the so-called Center Street Locos gang.

“We want to create an alternative pipeline to more positive choices. Our programs begin in elementary school, and the kids can continue to take part through high school,” Stump said.

Here’s a remarkable fact: “The gang can be very respectful when kids make a choice and insist on it,” Stump said. “They get left alone.”

Leadership Training is Crucial

The youngest children focus on developing social and communication skills like learning how to share and “just being nice,” Riecke said. As for the older kids, they move on to programs that teach them about leadership.

The kids essentially learn how to become politicians, she says.

“There’s an election process: They create campaign posters and they have to say ‘Vote for Me,’” Riecke said.

They may even attend a City Council meeting or present at a North County Lifeline event to get insight into real life.

“Lots of times they’re kids who aren’t so outgoing,” Riecke said. By serving as leaders, “they’re able to find their voice and get out of their shells.”

Outdoor Journeys Boost Motivation

Thanks to funding from SDG&E, Crown Heights students take part in an Outdoor Outreach program designed to expose them to the great outdoors and boost their leadership skills.

“If kids attend school and achieve the goals they have set, they can go on these Outdoor Outreach adventures,” Stump said. “They’ve gone on aquatics trips, they’ve learned how to kayak and surf, and they’ve gone rock climbing. The kids love these outdoor activities that excite and challenge them. We use this program as a way to motivate them to achieve their goals.”


Learn more about North County Lifeline’s sponsor, SDG&E.

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