West La Mesa's Little Miracle Unfolding

LA MESA -- On a typical night in La Mesa, when the residents above Lake Murray have turned in, when the comfortable residents in the hills above the Village have gone off to sleep and only the regulars are left in downtown bars, the police cruisers are often called to West La Mesa.

The modest homes, apartments and the neighborhood taverns crowded in off El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue can be a source of constant calls for police help. Family disputes, thefts, car break-ins, a concentration of robberies. It isn't quite an urban jungle, police will say, but it shows all the signs of families struggling, children with more time on their hands and less attention than stressed parents can give.

But now for the good news. Smack dab in the middle of all this need, a La Mesa miracle of sorts is taking shape this summer.  As if directed by some higher power, a La Mesa philanthropist, an NBA star, a school district with ambition and a long-standing civic arts group have coalesced around this piece of La Mesa and are plotting moves that could literally transform this section of the city.

Millions of dollars are being raised and architects are working on plans. A new curriculum is being pioneered to reinvigorate the local school and may result in bringing more of the middle class back. A public-private partnership is forming into an effort that may literally make this corner of town into a national model.

This effort will certainly get national attention this week. Bill Walton, the NBA Hall of Famer and Helix High's native son, is bringing his star power to bear on efforts to build a 25,000 square foot state-of-the-art Boys and Girls Club on the campus of La Mesa Middle School. The fundraisers -- already more than $4-million into a $9-million campaign -- will kick off a campaign within the campaign to call on Friends of Bill Walton to push this effort to a successful conclusion. Ads will begin appearing in the local newspapers, drawing on Walton's long reach on the national scene to help boost his hometown's ambitions and to fund the 10,000 square-foot gymnasium that will carry Walton's name.

Walton's efforts are following in the wake of herculean efforts made by another of La Mesa's native sons -- Ron Brady, a Helix High School graduate who went on to found a national construction company and make millions.

In his retirement, Brady (shown in photo with wife Mary Alice) has become a born-again supporter of efforts to give young kids a chance. He recently spent a day back at his alma mater, Helix Charter High School, learning how that school's unique  program has resulted in sending many of its low-income graduates off to college educations.

"We have to support these efforts,'' Brady said recently between his own meetings to raise funds for the Boys and Girls project. "It's not one man. It's everyone pitching in.''

Brady has already pitched in $3-million for the Boys and Girls project, but he has also taken up a leadership role in the cause, leaving his home on Mt. Helix to tap friends and colleagues and drumming of excitement for the effort. He has partnered with Walton and has convinced many of his own friends to join in too.

Brady's money has already resulted in a refurbished Boys and Girls Club Teen Center on the La Mesa Middle School campus, but the construction of a brand new facility on the campus's west end will be transformative -- virtually connecting the Middle School facilities to the Helix High School campus just a few hundred feet west of the new planned Boys and Girls Club facility.

"You couldn't build it soon enough,'' La Mesa Police Chief Ed Aceves said. "I couldn't think of a better place to add a facility like that for this city. It will make an enormous difference.''

But beyond the after-school and weekend programs offered at the Boys and Girls Club, transformation is happening elsewhere on this campus as well.

As the summer days have moved on, teachers and administrators associated with the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District have been hard at work setting new precedents of their own within the confines of the existing Middle School buildings.

In mid-August, this campus will become home to a new approach to grade 4-8 education being pioneered by a core of educators from the district. Arriving students will find a new dance studio with state-of-the-art flooring (see photo right). A new black-box theater. Music and visual arts programs built into the curriculum.

Brian Marshall, the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District Superintendent and his board have tapped the deep community roots of the Peter Pan Jr. Theater to attract more than 500 students to a new arts-based program that will double the population of the La Mesa Middle School campus in a single year. Some of the new program's students have been attracted from outside the district's traditional boundaries to what has become known as the La Mesa Arts Academy.

"We are very pleased with how this program is developing,'' Marshall said recently. "We think it can be a model for adding a focus to these years.''

Peter Pan Jr. Theater has its own heroic local story with more than 30 years of tradition teaching theater arts to generations of La Mesa youth while emphasizing character development. In many ways PPJT and its director, Mark Arapostathis, who helped found and will teach at The Arts Academy, has laid the ground-work for what will become La Mesa-Spring Valley's arts-based curriculum at The Arts Academy. With PPJT's 5,000 square-foot scene and costume shop just across the street from the La Mesa Middle School and just down the road from Helix Charter High School's new performing arts center, La Mesa is developing its own theater district of sorts.

If Brady, Walton, and their partners in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District and Boys and Girls Club are successful, this town may be writing its own new version of a happy west side story.

That story's next chapter will begin Thursday evening with a special event at the Brady Teen Center. Walton will gather with Helix High School graduates at 5 p.m. before participating at 5:30 p.m. in an event to honor the $3-million donation made by the Ron and Mary Alice Brady. A $50,000 check from the East County Economic Development Council Foundation will be presented by Bob Taylor, founder of Taylor's Guitars.

Also speaking at the Thursday evening event will be Steve South, president/CEO of EDCO Disposal and chairman of the La Mesa Capital Campaign. South will discuss a new website for fundraising efforts for the Bill Walton Gymnasium, www.FriendsOfBillWalton.org.

The new Brady Family Clubhouse will be the largest of the six Boys and Girls Clubs of East County. Construction is planned to begin in late 2015 or early 2016, with full operations scheduled for the start of the 2016-2017 school year. The clubhouse will feature a learning center called The Academy, a full-service kitchen and nutrition center and Little Rascals area for 5-to-7-year olds, plus the Bill Walton Gymnasium.



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Tags: Bill Walton, Brian Marshall, Helix Charter High School, La Mesa Arts Academy, La Mesa Today, La Mesa newspaper, Mark Arapostathis, NBA Hall of Fame, Ron Brady, Ron and Mary Alice Brady


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Comment by chris shea on July 23, 2014 at 2:49pm

This is pretty wonderful.  People can be so grand.  My heart is cheering for all involved, but mostly I am so happy for what this generosity will do for the kids.  Bravo!

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