Students without transportation in the South Tucson community may no longer be stranded thanks to a new club at the John A. Valenzuela Youth Center.
Children in the club can earn one of 25 bikes given to the youth center by the South Tucson Police Department a few months ago, according to Jessica Alderete, the program coordinator and 11-year employee of the center. The bikes had either been stolen or abandoned, and recovered by police in the South Tucson area. Although the recovered bikes were damaged, Alderete and co-worker Chuck Peralta suggested they be used to start a bike club, where students could refurbish the bikes and take them home once they were fixed.
“This program gives our kids ways to gain knowledge,” she said. “It helps them figure out their role and how to stand up for things. It’s a great way for them to learn about how to make good choices from their peers and not just their parents.”
Eight or nine students usually attend the bike club meetings on Thursday and Friday evenings. Alderete said because the likelihood of kids getting into trouble increases at night, parents can rest knowing their kids are doing something productive at the center. She added that the selection of the Chuck Peralta, a recreational aide at the center, as the teacher for the club has increased this sense of safety and involvement.
“Chuck is the neighborhood Dad,” Alderete said. “A lot of these kids don’t have fathers. But he has the tools and helps them learn.”
Peralta has worked at the center for 17 years and said the bike club builds confidence in the kids who visit.
“The kids have an opportunity to take ownership of something they built with their own two hands,” Peralta said. “Since they made it, they want to take care of it.”
He believes this confidence transfers to other areas of their lives, such as their schoolwork and friendships.
“They prove to themselves they have the talents and skills to apply themselves to anything they want,” he said.
The program holds special significance for Peralta, who said he appreciates working at the center because he gets to give kids what he didn’t have when he was growing up.
“I worked on bikes when I was small, and I remember when I didn’t have my own bike and all my friends did,” he said. “When this opportunity arose, I realized it was a great way to give them what I wished I had.”
Ricardo Tovar, a seventh grade student at Safford Middle School, has attended classes for the bike club for three weeks now. And last Saturday, he got to finally claim his own bike after fixing it himself.
“I was so excited to take it home because I had been fixing it for while,” he said.
Tovar uses the bike to ride to school, which he said is helpful when his mom is too busy to take him.
Tovar isn’t the only neighborhood kid to benefit from the services offered at the John A. Valenzuela Youth Center. All seven of the center’s staff members are past participants of various programs.
Named after South Tucson Police Officer John Valenzuela, the youth center offers free after-school, drop-in recreational and educational programs Monday through Friday for community youth. The 150 participating elementary students can access classes ranging from arts and crafts, to Folklorico dancing, to cooking and sports. In addition, middle and high school students can play on a basketball team, take wood burning or cooking classes, or participate in the new bike club.
Keyla Ramirez, a recreational aid, said she doesn’t know where she would be without the center.
“My favorite part is the meaningful history that I have here,” she said. “I started coming here because of family problems at home, and it helped me because I could talk to the staff members.”
Just as those staff members helped her through tough times, Ramirez, as well as Alderete and Peralta, want to be there for students who need someone to talk to as well.
“We just want them to live successful lives,” Peralta said.