Los Angelitos provides academic, athletic opportunities

More than nine years ago, Bill Sparks and his wife, Sarah Garfield, noticed some Encinitas residents that were struggling. Since then, it has been their mission to help local low-income families give their kids the same experiences available to other Encinitas children, and they’ve done it by founding the nonprofit Los Angelitos de Encinitas.

When their son, David, now 19, started at Paul Ecke-Central Elementary School, Sparks and Garfield, his wife of 22 years, wondered why there was a class full of Hispanic kids separated from the rest of the students. After doing some research and finding out that dual-language immersion could be beneficial to both English- and Spanish-speaking students, Sparks and Garfield began advocating for that approach at PTA and school board meetings.

When they were able to receive a special exemption for David to be placed in the Hispanic class for a few hours a week — resulting in the young boy playing soccer with his new classmates every day at recess — a new idea was born.

The family noticed that while these kids loved soccer, hardly any of them could afford to play in the Encinitas community soccer league. As they worked toward that goal, eventually creating a team of 14 Hispanic kids and David that played indoor soccer at the Magdalena Ecke YMCA, more ideas began to take shape.

Since becoming an officially sanctioned nonprofit in 2008, Los Angelitos has partnered with the Encinitas and Cardiff soccer leagues to make it possible for hundreds of low-income children to play the sport, teamed with the Encinitas Union School District to created 40 low-income spots in the Aspire afterschool program at Paul Ecke-Central and joined with the YMCA to bring hundreds of low-income kids into its programs, most recently swim lessons.

But it all started in 2007 with those 15 kids playing soccer in the YMCA’s Challenger League.

“We went to the YMCA and asked for discounted pricing to be able to enter their indoor soccer season. They said fine, we’ll give you a discount if you provide your own uniforms,” Sparks explained.

After playing one day in mismatched T-shirts, Sparks was able to provide uniforms for his team by finding discounted pricing in Mexico.

“I felt like Santa Claus,” Sparks said. “None of them had played on an organized sports team, none of them had had a uniform before, I think a lot of them went home and slept in them that night.”

Following that season, and a year and a half of negotiations with the Encinitas Soccer League, Los Angelitos was able to work out all of the details and the program’s doors were finally open to low-income families. Now, about 25 percent of the players (boys and girls) in the Encinitas and Cardiff soccer leagues are from the low-income families.

“Our formula, and we’ve tried to replicate this throughout the community with other organizations that already exist … is that we do that outreach, we do co-registration with our partners and we do co-pays with the families and we negotiate with the community partners to give us what would normally be the financial assistance price, but to accept our criteria,” Sparks said.

That criteria, Sparks continued, is the same one used to determine eligibility for the federal Free and Reduced School Lunch Program. Los Angelitos has convinced the local community programs to recognize eligibility for reduced registration costs by that same criteria, and then further reduces the costs to the family through fundraising and economy of scale.

For a young soccer player, for instance, if registration cost is normally $200, Los Angelitos’ deal with the Encinitas community league is to charge $135 per child, a cost Los Angelitos then splits with the family. Some families even pay their co-pay over the course of a couple of months, as Los Angelitos thinks getting the kids into the programs as soon as possible is goal number one.

Around the same time as the deal with the soccer leagues was worked out, Sparks said he and his wife would often hear that the low-income kids were having trouble academically. And they knew that getting them into the school’s structured afterschool program — where they could get instruction as well as supervision — would be the perfect way to remedy those problems.

“Regardless of one’s political affiliation, you can get people behind the idea that it is more efficient and less expensive to pay what we would call preventative costs … then to continue to pay for the costs of a whole host of social issues,” Sparks said. “If we integrate and provide this assistance at the front end, the outcome is going to be more successful for all of us.

“At Paul Ecke-Central, we saw that the best way to help these families is to provide a safe, productive environment for their children after school. We went to the school district, trying to get these kids into the existing afterschool programs, which are not affordable for them.

And the Trailblazers program was born. For the past eight years, Los Angelitos has been giving approximately $18,000 plus another $8,000 of co-pays from the families, while EUSD contributes approximately $20,000 more to allow 40 of Paul Ecke’s low-income children to attend the Aspire afterschool care on site for the entire school year.

An additional part of Trailblazers is a volunteer program for successful high school students to come to the afterschool program and act as study buddies for the low-income students. They find this to be beneficial not just for the elementary school students, but as a great experience for the mentors, who also get a strong extra-curricular to put on their résumés or college applications.

In addition to the soccer and afterschool programs, a third major focus for Los Angelitos has been swim classes through the YMCA. Sparked by the initial deal for the indoor soccer team, Los Angelitos has developed a successful partnership with the YMCA, which has worked with the organization to get hundreds more low-income kids into the indoor soccer program, the summer camp program and, this year, swim programs.

“Not only is it a life risk, but as a social barrier, it is huge,” Sparks said of kids not knowing how to swim. “So many of us that live here, our focus is on the beach, surfing, swimming, enjoying weekends with our families at the beach. But (without their kids being able to swim) this segment of our community is excluded from that because it isn’t a safe environment for them.”

This year, local sponsors have worked with Los Angelitos to provide 150 low-income children with swim classes for a full year until they reach a competent swimming level.

While Sparks and Garfield are the co-founders, and they credit their children — David and 17-year-old Ella — for embracing the program, another key member of Los Angelitos is board president Gaby Beas.

“She is a product of this community, raised by her grandparents who worked for the Ecke family in the fields,” Sparks said of Beas, whose day job is the Director of North County Migrant Services for San Diego County.

“She provides the hub, she knows all of these families from her work with the county. And she’s a dynamo.”

Sparks, Garfield, Beas and other board members — John Earnhart, Josh Devall and Janisse Martintez — are currently working toward a partnership with the city of Encinitas, which would allow Los Angelitos to use their outreach and liaison services to connect low-income families to even more opportunities.