This is the second installation in a five-part series on the area of town known as the Westside. Today’s article is the second in a two-part look at the faith community and its role on the Westside. Coming articles will focus on crime, business and the people of the Westside.
Twenty-five years ago JoLynn DiGrazia looked around the town she grew up in and was shocked at what she saw.
She saw children playing in graffiti-covered Westside parks. She saw more and more young men and women wearing gang colors. And she saw the drugs.
“One day I woke up and meth had taken over the neighborhood and I was shocked,” DiGrazia said.
“I grew up in Turlock and didn’t know what was going on. It didn’t occur to me.”
DiGrazia, then an elementary school teacher, felt called to take action. Soon after, JoLynn and her husband, Joe DiGrazia, started hosting Bible studies in their home. The Bible studies grew to ministry meetings, which eventually grew into Westside Ministries; a full-time youth center, community outreach program and church located on Columbia Street in Turlock’s Westside.
Today, more than 600 youth and children participate each day in after-school tutoring programs, 4-H clubs, dance classes through the ministry’s 5,500 sq. ft. facility that houses the Center for Urban Performance and Service and church groups.
Over the years, JoLynn DiGrazia said she has seen much improvement in the conditions on the Westside.
“City government has gotten a lot more responsive to the needs on the Westside. And graffiti abatement is perfect,” she said. “But, there’s a lot of denial of what the Westside is like.”
Major Debi Shrum of the Turlock Salvation Army Corps agrees.
“People who live outside of the Westside will see shoes on telephone lines and graffiti; they’ll see the signs, but don’t know what they mean,” Shrum said. “Ignorance is bliss. There’s an attitude of ‘if it happens on the Westside, it won’t touch anybody else.’”
JoLynn DiGrazia knows many current and former gang members. Over the past 20 years, she has taught young boys who ended up in jail and when they came back they were gang members. Those youths are now fathers and their children come to Westside Ministries for after-school programs. She believes that a change in the culture of gangs and drugs that is evident on the Westside will only come through change from the people who live there.
“We believe in doing urban renewal from the inside out instead of from the outside in,” DiGrazia said.
While the Salvation Army Corps had been ministering to the people of Turlock for many years, they too recognized the unique issues of the Westside and nine years ago built a Lander Avenue facility.
When Shrum came to Turlock eight years ago she said the number one need was getting the kids of the Westside off the street and giving them a safe place to go.
“We saw a need for there to be night activities and after-school activities for the kids,” Shrum said.
In 2009, the Turlock Salvation Army had 17,000 teenagers use their gym and game room and 11,000 participate in organized sports. They also had 1,100 children attend the Army’s homework club and tutoring program.
The Salvation Army and Westside Ministries both hope to offer the children of the Westside an alternative to joining a gang.
While the Army continues to reach out to the kids of the Westside — and all of Turlock — recently, Shrum said they are seeing an increase in the need for social services.
“We are giving out more food baskets and helping pay higher utility bills,” she said.
Just in 2009, the Turlock Salvation Army gave 2,400 families five-day food baskets and assisted 928 families to pay their utility bills. Shrum said the Army is seeing first-hand the effects of the current economic recession.
“We’re seeing people who are just frightened of the future, not knowing what’s going on, what the future holds for them,” she said.
Shrum sees the Salvation Army, along with the rest of the Westside faith community, as bridges that connect all Turlockers together for a better city.
“We see issues that (the community as a whole) needs to start dealing with. We point out problems and help be the solution,” she said.
To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.