By Angela Nicole Parker
The Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center is an organization built on hope. Founded in 1990 by Myrtle Faye Rumph, in memory of the son she lost to gang violence, the center was created to provide at-risk youth with an alternative to the violence, death and imprisonment that was imperiling their futures.
For Naomi McSwain, the current executive director, working with these youth is her life’s work and her family’s legacy. Not only did she help her aunt found the center, but as a former girlfriend of a gang leader, she has firsthand knowledge of the challenges they face.
“I attended Thomas Jefferson High School and understand the pressures and activities in gang involvement,” McSwain said. “Based on my experiences, I have faith that anyone can change with intervention. [Many people] helped me change my heart and mind and understand the road I was traveling on. It takes a village!”
In the 28 years since it began its mission in a rented two-room storefront building, servicing four boys in search of a better future, the organization has become a community staple. It now operates six storefronts that are owned by the organization, where it offers college preparatory classes to more than 350 students per year in grades 3-12.
McSwain believes that youth in South Los Angeles are being left behind in an increasingly digital and global age and wants the Wooten Center to bridge that gap.
“After-school programs have to be more than homework and basketball,” McSwain said. “My aunt died in 2016, but before she passed we talked about while the center will always be committed to our gang prevention and intervention services, we must shift more of our focus towards college readiness.”
To that end, all participants engage in classes based on the A-G requirements for high school graduation and college admissions. Participants also take classes in world languages and culture, performing and visual arts. Classes in science, technology, engineering and math fields including robotics, architecture, coding and aerospace engineering also have been added.
The Wooten Center sees itself as taking a neighborhood approach to the revitalization of a community in crisis. It is McSwain’s hope that it can establish after-school programs in other communities in South L.A. The organization also is working to partner with churches to establish programs at their sites. And while McSwain is excited about those changes, she is also aware of the challenges that face the organization.
The center recently received a reduction in its federally funded food program, making it dependent on donations from sister organizations like Pacifica Foods in Corona, the Los Angeles Mission downtown, and Wooten Center parents and staff to provide means to their youth. The organization is also currently focused on building renovations, seeking funding to transform the six storefront buildings into one youth center that will double its service capacity.
McSwain is confident the center will overcome these challenges with the community’s help.
“My aunt had this phrase where she wanted people to ‘catch the vision,’” McSwain said. “She wanted people to understand that we needed to come together and shift the focus from locking our kids up to offering them relevant, on-the-ground services that will open the door to a better future for themselves and the community in which they live. … The community has been very supportive. [They know] we provide a safe and nurturing environment that is committed to good citizenship and academic excellence.”
CEO: Naomi McSwain
Years in operation: 28 years
Organizational budget: $600,000
Location: 9106 Western Ave., Los Angeles, 90047