Making a Difference West Edition

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Peace 4 Kids turns dream garden into foster program

LOS ANGELES — What do you do when you’re inspired by an event that celebrates peace and the lives of two of history’s most prominent advocates of nonviolence? You start a nonprofit.

At least that’s what Zaid Gayle and Marni Otway did in 1998 when they founded Peace4Kids.

In honor of a national campaign to promote peace called a Season for Nonviolence, Gayle and Otway started working with churches with the goal of bringing the nonviolent principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to the Watts and Compton communities.

“One of the [church] kids had lost a cousin to gang violence, so we decided to build a peace garden,” Gayle said. “We had built traction to start the garden at the Watts Towers but there was too much risk of liability.”

But when teachers at 99th Street Elementary School got word of the peace concept Gayle and Otway were trying to execute, they invited them to speak at their campus. A week later, partners Gayle and Otway received a packet of letters from students at the school inviting them to build their dream garden on campus.

The package of letters, titled “99 Reasons Why We Need A Peace Garden,” contained the students’ personal stories of how violence had impacted their lives; letters that revealed the profound traumas they had experienced. But within their words, there was still a tight grasp of hope, Gayle said.

“Though we started our movement to teach principles of peace at the elementary school, we soon learned that many kids were also impacted by the foster care system,” Gayle said. So he and his partner decided to develop a program for those youth.

Since making that commitment, Peace4Kids has developed several key programs that serve everyone between 4 and 25 years of age that have been affected by the foster care system.

One such program is the Core Saturday Program, which provides educational and creative courses to more than 300 youth in foster care between child and adolescent ages. In it, they learn to build self-esteem, conflict resolution and cooperation with a curriculum that teaches them creative writing, culinary arts, digital arts, science, dance, film and other artistic skills.

Gayle believes that through creativity, kids who experienced trauma have a way to express what they’ve gone through: like the trauma of being taken away from their biological family, an experience far too familiar to many of the program’s youth.

“Art becomes a great way to express frustration and gives voice to the trauma,” Gayle said. “It is a way to articulate to others what they feel and what they’ve gone through.”

The nonprofit’s other programs include the Peace4Kids Mentor Program, which matches foster care youth with adults; transitional youth services, which guide and prepare the older youth who are aging out of the foster care system; and its Leadership Program and Advocacy Movement, which promotes community information and engagement about the child welfare system through its foster youth.

Peace4Kids is now approaching 20 years of service to the foster community in South L.A. Since its beginnings, the organization’s volunteers and employees have worked hard and diligently to help foster youth rise above their circumstances.

As for the future, Gayle said they are working to change the common perceptions of foster youth.

“Up to this point, we feel that childhood trauma and how that affects youth development had been deficit based, told through negative statistical outcomes,” Gayle said. “But we’ve come to understand that youth have great adaptive skills from their trauma. So we’re working to gather data that shows adaptive strengths as a result. Because we believe and have seen that youth that go through foster care can be very resilient.”

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CEO: Zaid Gayle

Annual budget: $ 500,000

Number of employees: 3-4

Years in operation: 19

Location: 1339 E. 120th Street

Los Angeles, CA 90059