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Making South L.A. a better place to live

Jefferson Award-winner Adela Barajas
August 22, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The Jefferson Awards were established to recognize people who make a difference through volunteering. This month's Jefferson Award-winner is a woman who channeled her grief into building a thriving community organization.A few miles south of Downtown L.A. near the corner of Vernon and Alameda, a bullet is still lodged into a telephone pole. The gunshots rang out on March 18, 2007. Adela Barajas remembers it well.

"When violence - when murder - touches your family, your life," said Adela, "your family becomes a dysfunctional family, one way or another."

On that day two years ago, Adela's 34-year-old sister-in-law, Laura Sanchez, was caught in the crossfire of a drive by-shooting. Police say she was an innocent bystander, a casualty of gang tensions in this South L.A. neighborhood.

"On the street, in front of a lot of family, because she had just taken some kids after her daughter's rehearsal," explained Adela.

Laura left behind a husband and three children. A year later, her husband was hit by stray gunfire while working outside the house. He survived, but the family decided to leave South L.A. And that's when Adela had had enough.

"Everybody has this thing about South L.A., that we're all gang members," said Adela. "But that's not the case. My family [are] not gang members. And we experienced three tragedies, one after the other."

Adela started an organization called Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts (LAURA) in honor of her slain sister-in-law. And for Adela, who is this month's Jefferson Award-winner, forgiveness is more than a slogan. She was in court on the day that one of the men in her sister-in-law's murder was convicted. Adela was spotted trying to comfort the mother of the young man who was the getaway driver.

"If you want to do something about it, you don't have to go kill someone else," said Adela. "What you could do is try to make change."

Every week, Adela returns to her old neighborhood from her family's new home in Southgate. She runs weekly community meetings where residents work to make their neighborhood a better place to live.

"She's a great example of out of pain and trauma and tragedy, a new life emerges," said Father Stan Bosch, gang intervention specialist.

"She's passionate," said South L.A. resident Patricia Umana. "She's really truthful about caring about the community."

While there have been a few setbacks along Adela's journey, there have also been victories. Some of them have been small, like getting the city to repair a pothole. Some of them have been much larger, like getting the city to move forward with new plans to build a rec center at Fred Roberts Park.

For the past year, the former family home has been used by members of Adela's youth group. But due to a lack of funding, they are being forced to rent the home. And Adela's group will have to make due. But Adela says the group's work will continue.

"When you see progress and then you have to stop, it's hard, but we'll get through it," said an emotional Adela. "It's, you know... There hasn't been something to stop us far, so we'll find a way."