Neighborhood Heroes is a new series from Ring that celebrates the extraordinary impact ordinary people can have on their neighborhoods, making them a better place for all. Our first stop is Koreatown, where after the LA Riots divided the neighborhood, three neighbors reimagined their Korean youth center to create a place where the entire community could heal and grow together.
When the Korean Youth Center was founded in 1975 in Los Angeles, CA, its goal was to support at-risk Korean youth. In the decades since, the mission of the organization, now known as the Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC), hasn’t changed its hyper-local focus, but it has expanded to welcome all members of the community it serves. From providing education and housing, to health and financial services, KYCC now supports youth and families of all backgrounds and ethnicities in Koreatown.
“When I talk about the dynamic nature of the KYCC now, you can see how the organization has grown from one which has started out totally as a Korean-centric organization,” says Cooke Sunoo, co-founder of KYCC. “That small change in name from ‘Korean’ to ‘Koreatown’ says that we’re looking at the entire geography and everything that happens within there. KYCC’s mission has adapted to that change.”
Watch the video to meet the founders and learn about the Center’s journey and the transformational impact it has had on the community.
One of the many people whose life has been impacted by KYCC, and who is now paving the way for future change in the community, is Marilyn Ufrazio. She was born in L.A.’s Mid-City, at the edge of Koreatown, and raised by a single mother of Salvadoran descent. She came to KYCC in her teens as a volunteer helping younger kids with their homework. The experience at the Center changed the course of her life.
“A lot of the people who’ve been involved in KYCC shaped me to become the leader that I am,” Marilyn says.
When Marilyn was in college, she came back to KYCC during a summer break and a senior manager gave her a chance that turned out to be her opportunity to grow and develop. She served as a day camp instructor where she learned how to manage a group of children, became more confident speaking in front of the class and found herself growing into someone the kids looked up to.
Today, at 23, Marilyn spearheads the elementary program at KYCC. She helps her students manage emotions and behaviors that may be a result of challenging situations they face like homelessness or foster care.
“I do try to have activities for the kids where they recognize their behavior and how it affects them on a daily basis,” Marilyn says.
These activities include weekly mindfulness lessons with an instructor who teaches the students how to become more in tune with their bodies and emotions, as well as a weekly tap-dancing class aimed at getting their energy out.
And during an after-school program, Marilyn runs a “homework help” hour, much like the one she volunteered for all those years ago. “Some of the kids that I work with are not up to their academic grade level, so it does require a lot of that one-on-one attention,” she says.
That kind of work isn’t always easy. One autumn, for example, Marilyn met with a new student who was facing several difficult challenges in her life. Marilyn worried that she wouldn’t be able to help the fourth-grader, but that didn’t stop her from trying to connect with the young girl.
“Six months into the program she came to me one day, and she actually recited one of the things I said,” Marilyn says. “She was worried about kids bullying her at school, and I [told] her, it’s OK to be herself. Never change yourself for anyone. It’s OK if you’re different. [Months after that] she sat next to me and she shared with me that being herself actually made her feel much more comfortable with who she was.”
The experience proved to Marilyn that her work truly makes a difference in the kids’ lives.
It showed “the information I gave her did make an impact and did stay with her,” Marilyn says. “And that’s something that she will carry throughout her youth, throughout her adulthood. So, that in itself makes me happy.”
For Marilyn, experiences like this make her “appreciate [that] the work that I do is impacting these kids. They are seeing that, even growing up in the hood or going to a public school, you can still make it,” she says. “I appreciate the work that I do here, and it humbles me.”
It’s members like Marilyn who have helped KYCC endure and thrive over its 45 years, says Cooke, the KYCC co-founder.
“A collective sense of mission is what brought us together and it’s what keeps KYCC such a strong and vital and dynamic organization today,” Cooke says. “That mission is still there, but it’s able to change with the times.”
And changing with the times is what Marilyn hopes to see in the future for Koreatown: “I hope it does continue to develop… to bring the culture that we have and the exposure that we have now, as well as the diversity. When you have diversity, when you have culture, you have that exposure [for] the younger generation, you get more of an open mindedness with the community.”
We are proud to feature Cooke, Marilyn and all of the members of KYCC as Neighborhood Heroes in Koreatown, Los Angeles. They prove ordinary people can create real, positive change in their communities.
If you know a Neighborhood Hero in your community that we should feature, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.