Sometimes it takes youths to grease the wheels of change and make things happen. On a windy Friday evening it was a group of Napa High School students, who are involved in an innovative leadership program, doing the greasing.

The youths of LAYLA — an acronym for Leadership Academy: Youth Leaders in Action, which is a program of the nonprofit agency On The Move — broke ground on McPherson Cultural Plaza and Neighborhood Center at McPherson Elementary School Friday.

Once completed, in an estimated two or more years, the Cultural Plaza and Neighborhood Center will be a place where McPherson neighborhood residents can come together to learn about different cultures, spearhead volunteer efforts, get connected with health, legal, financial, housing and tax services, and enjoy many new park features.

McPherson neighborhood is defined as the area bordered by Soscol Avenue, Trancas Street, California Boulevard and Caymus and Jefferson Streets. Also included in McPherson neighborhood is McPherson Elementary, which serves as the heart of the neighborhood, Valley Oak High School, Clinic Ole, Napa High, St. John’s Church and Boys & Girls Club of Napa.
“What we envision it to be, once it’s complete, is to create a better future for the kids,” said Nancy Otero, 17, LAYLA member and Napa High senior.

“By having a place of culture we want people to call it their home,” said Denise Deloera, 17, a senior at Napa High.

Liliana Galvan, a 17-year-old Napa High senior and LAYLA member, said that the project will also help bridge inter-generational gaps within McPherson neighborhood, creating a greater understand between youths, adults and senior citizens.

LAYLA members such as Otero, Deloera and Galvan call the project a democracy zone, a place where people LEAD — Listen to what matters to others, Express thoughts and feelings, Act on behalf of children and Decide together. On The Move’s executive director, Leslie Medine, said Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony was the result of many months of planning on the part of LAYLA members.

“The idea of the democracy zone is youth leading the way with the support of adults,” Medine said.

Breaking ground on the plaza and center was no easy feat for the teenagers and their adult supporters. For about three years LAYLA members held town-hall meetings at McPherson, seeking community input about the project, Medine said. The group then linked up with many local architects including Emmanuel Donval, who is a Napa Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission member, to hold design brainstorming sessions and come up with a blueprint for the center.

Otero, Galvan and Deloera and their fellow LAYLA members then held numerous presentations in front of the Napa City Council, Napa City Parks and Recreation Commission and Napa Valley Unified School District Board of Education and obtained the approval of each government body to begin construction on the project.

The youths’ next challenge was finding funding for the center and plaza. Donval, who helped design the garden that will be maintained by LAYLA and McPherson students, said most of the funding for the project is coming from the city’s Park and Recreation Facilities Master Plan. Additional funds are being donated by groups such as the New York-based Andrus Family Fund.
Medine said she could not estimate the final cost of the project, but she said that the more costly aspects include the bathrooms at $40,000 and the water play area, estimated to cost about $125,000. She said that volunteers will help keep overall construction costs down.

The plaza and neighborhood center will be situated on school grounds and O’Brien Park, which belongs to the city of Napa, and will feature many park improvements and upgrades.
New picnic tables, bathrooms, a sand volleyball court, an outdoor kitchen and stage and a water play area will provide families a fun day at the park. On the school’s side of the fence, LAYLA will train the next generation of community leaders and host a variety of new services for the community.
LAYLA’s efforts on behalf of McPherson neighborhood are appreciated by all students and their families at McPherson Elementary, said Tamara Sanguinetti, the school’s principal.
“I think it’s really instilled so much pride in the students here,” she said.

The cultural plaza and neighborhood center is not LAYLA’s first project at the school. Last year, LAYLA youths spearheaded efforts at the school to build a playground for McPherson preschoolers, dubbing the playground Dos Mundos — Spanish for two worlds.

On Friday LAYLA youths continued the tradition of giving to the school by planting the first of four buckeye trees that will border the garden area of the neighborhood center.

Donval said he expects the garden area to be complete by the end of the summer. The rest of the projects that will make up the center and cultural plaza will take anywhere between two and five years, Medine said.