A local youth organization is taking the reins to meet thecommunity’s needs while transforming Napa’s McPherson neighborhood into a more diverse, dynamic place to live.

Members of Leadership Academy: Youth Leaders in Action (LAYLA) — a program of nonprofit organization On the Move — are trying to secure a new multi-cultural neighborhood center and plaza for area residents.

Although the project’s formal approval process is pending, a multi-cultural neighborhood center and plaza on McPherson Elementary School and city property could eventually include an outdoor kitchen, herb garden, water play area, volleyball court, dance floor and other features for public use.

The tentative plan involves using two existing classrooms at McPherson Elementary School and a third portable building from elsewhere on school district property. Two classrooms would house the LAYLA program, while the third would become home to a family resource center connecting residents to health and wellness services, according to Leslie Medine, executive director of On the Move. Assistance would also be available in the form of legal, financial and housing help, and the center would also serve as a hub for school volunteering efforts, she said. 

Coming up with a visual sketch of the project incorporated input from some 500 residents and enlisted the help of six architects. The designers donated time by sitting down with public design teams for brainstorming sessions that produced several versions of visual plans for the center and plaza. The current design draft is a blend of all six.

Lupe Garcia, a LAYLA member and senior at Napa High School, said her organization borrowed the idea of a community center from a sister leadership academy called On the Verge. The agency hosted a 2007 symposium about neighborhood improvement, she said.

When it comes to LAYLA’s efforts on behalf of a new center, an important step came when LAYLA members orchestrated a town hall meeting in early 2008 to get input about how to create a “healthier, closer neighborhood,” Garcia said.

“They wanted a place to have fun, have family events and gather the community,” she said, adding that other possibilities for the center might include cooking classes, art classes or even a farmers market.

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LAYLA member Monica Alvarez said the area would represent a “democracy zone” where residents and different cultures could come together. Alvarez said it would especially benefit young people because the area could become a hub where “teens can find something healthy and fun to do.”

Although McPherson Elementary School is the heart of the McPherson neighborhood, the area is roughly bordered by St. John’s Church to the south, the Boys & Girls Club, Trancas Street and Soscol Avenue. About 2,000 young people and 4,000 adults live in the neighborhood, Medine said.

LAYLA member Nancy Otero, 17, said the tentative plan is to use donated materials and volunteers to build the project.    

Eric Cruz, a Napa High junior and LAYLA member, said his group presented the idea to an enthusiastic Napa City Council in mid-October. LAYLA youth also recently shared preliminary project plans with Napa’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission and Napa Valley Unified School District’s board of trustees.

At a recent meeting of the school district’s board of trustees, Board President Thomas Kensok praised LAYLA for its efforts and “trying to move forward and make a difference in our community.” 

The teens plan to present the tentative plan on Nov. 7 to their organization’s major fundraiser, the S.H. Cowell Foundation, a San Francisco-based private agency. LAYLA members then plan to host a Nov. 18 public meeting at McPherson Elementary School’s multi-purpose room to update residents about project plans and recruit volunteers for the undertaking.

Medine said the project would take two years to build. Although parts of it that would lie east of McPherson Elementary’s fire lane require the city’s approval, the rest require the nod from the Napa Valley Unified School District board of trustees, she said.

  • The project’s next steps include presenting architectural plans to the Napa City Council.