Though located in the neighboring community of Paramount, Alma Vargas jokes about her office that, “Hey – when you walk in here, you’re stepping into the city of Compton!”
No doubt many citizens of Compton would grant her that honorary residency. As the main liaison representing the Compton Initiative (CI) to the city, she has won the hearts of everyone from the school board superintendent and principals to individual homeowners. The CI is a partnership among organizations and churches that hosts 4 work days a year to“just do good” in the city. On an average work day, 1600-1800 volunteers, from in and outside of Compton, gather to clean up and paint at least 2 schools and 12-13 properties. Before that can happen, someone has to meet with home owners and school principals and city council officials to determine the best work sites. Someone has to access the site needs and decide what kinds of skilled labor will be needed, to communicate with the guys heading up the labor crews, then to communicate back to the site, and to the warehouse manager, and so on. Someone has to shepherd the process the entire way through — that shepherd is Alma.
Alma started with the Initiative as a volunteer, working alongside her husband, Carlos. She soon became so excited about the changes happening in Compton, that she began rethinking her career. She eventually left behind her years as a nurse to serve the non-profit full time, a decision she’s never regretted.
Alma’s love for her job is obvious — her passion for the rebirthing of Compton is contagious. She says the residents of Compton are her inspiration. “I’ve met homeowners who have stuck it out here through everything – through riots, through city corruption. They see the changes taking place in Compton, and they have hope that this city can have life again. That’s my motivation — seeing a city filled with hope!”
In her early days with the Initiative, Alma spent hours walking the streets each week, trying to find home owners who were willing to participate in the program. In a day when even the safest sounding deal can turn out to be a scam, having someone offer to paint the outside of your home for free can seem suspect. But Alma has a warm smile and cheerful enthusiasm that quickly puts others at ease. Everything about her tiny frame invites people to trust her.
It’s a wise decision to do so. Alma’s reputation for being honest, upfront, and reliable is one she’s earned. If the Compton Initiative can’t do something, she’ll look you straight in the eye and say so. Conversely, if she makes you a promise, it will not be broken.
Case in point is Laurel Elementary, originally scheduled to be a work site in January. The school had been prepped and ready for its makeover – then came the January rains, drowning out some of the prep work and all hopes of a work day. After rescheduling the work day twice due to weather, it was moved up to April.
But the weather had caused more problems for the school than just scheduling. Water flooded the grounds and filled a meadow on the eastern half of the school that the staff jokingly named “Laurel Lake.” Mud and puddles were everywhere, and some pathways had to be covered with wooden pallets in order for students to walk to class. Even weeks after the rains stopped, Laurel Lake still stood. Desperate to provide a proper environment for her students, Laurel’s principal, Dr. Francisca Owoaje, approached Alma about the problem. Alma admitted that she had no idea if the CI could help, but promised she’d look into it.
She started consulting with professionals about Laurel’s water problem, and found out that Laurel needed a french drain. It would be impossible for the school district to afford the several thousands needed to buy and install that kind of a system. However, if the Compton Initiative partnered with the district by providing the manpower and equipment needed to install the drains, the problem could be solved.
Alma took this proposal to the school board, and the district jumped at the chance. Excavation began shortly after. Looking back, Alma now sees all that water as one more example of divine providence. “If we had scheduled the school for a work day in say, July – we never would have witnessed those water problems. Now Laurel has the drain they needed, and the school district has been saved tons of money.”
On April 10th, Laurel Elementary still received the overall beautification with freshly painted buildings, new landscaping, and beautiful playground murals.
By the end of that Saturday, Alma went go home rejoicing over another work day completed. On Sunday she celebrated with her congregation the job well done. But come Monday, she was back to work planning for July – because there is always more good to be done!
Look for more stories on Dr. Francisca Owoaje and her amazing Laurel Elementary in the coming week! To find out more about the Compton Initiative, see the “About the Compton Initiative” page on this blog.