Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Church volunteer Blakelee Bartik, right, helps Jonathan Hidalgo, left, and Cristian Garfias with their homework last week at the Hope Center in Loganville.
LOGANVILLE -- The bullets started biting a few ticks past 11 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2009.
Someone was shooting from the outside, piercing the 222 Howe Lane trailer's thin walls, shot after shot down the length of the single-wide, loud enough to shake neighborhood kids from bed.
When the gunfire ceased, two friends lounging in the living room had been hit -- one man (age 44) in his right cheek, the other (57) his back. Police and paramedics descended, whisking the men to hospitals as CSI set up. One neighbor called it the second drive-by shooting in the trailer park in as many weeks.
The men, according to locals, recovered and skipped town. They were not charged. Whoever was firing the gun remains at large in the ongoing investigation.
The irony lies in what the shooter could not have known, that a few seconds of violence would set in motion a small-scale renaissance at Gwinnett Estates Mobile Home Park, a low-rent hamlet at the junction of U.S. Highway 78 and Rosebud Road in Loganville. These days the Howe Lane trailer is less a sitting target and more a bastion of hope. A deluge of children frequently pours from school buses and rushes to it.
Pick a weekday afternoon. Park in the street about 4 p.m. Proceed up the trailer's sturdy new deck, step through the doors and hear a cacophony of kid sounds -- the crunch of LEGOs, the moos of animated barnyard animals, the stomp of 100 feet. The children's dialects are crisply American. With eyes closed this could be any elementary classroom in the country. Eyes open, it's a different story.
In two years, the double-shooting scene has been transformed into the Hope Center, a grassroots outreach for trailer-park kids -- and the first program of its kind in Gwinnett -- started by a husband-wife team from Graystone Church. Where 23 bullet holes snaked down the wall, a dry-erase board hangs. Where a brown blood stain hardened near the kitchen, a little table hosts students playing KerPlunk.
Gwinnett Estates management sold the embattled trailer to cofounders Jim Hollandsworth and wife, Melinda, for $1,000. Their first order of business was to cut away the police cordoning tape. A $10,000, three-month transformation bolstered by volunteer labor brought the trailer two new decks, fresh carpeting, a new roof. Workers found baggies of cocaine left behind and tossed them in a Dumpster.
"When we first walked in, it seemed unlivable," said Jim Hollandsworth, a Snellville native and veteran of religious missions overseas. "We completely gutted it."
On most weekday afternoons, the center brims with neighborhood kids from toddlers to middle school-aged who are almost exclusively the children of undocumented Mexican immigrants -- and the center's primary focus. Other programs help high-schoolers with homework, or lend them Internet access. Newer services include adult English classes, a women's exercise program and a haircut ministry. A daily roster of 10 volunteers -- many of them Honor Society students at local high schools -- assists a full-time staff of two.
For years, the neighborhood was a hotbed of drug trafficking and gang activity, where the high school dropout rate hovered at 50 percent, teen girls frequently got pregnant and nobody went to college. Leaders say the gangbangers lay low when the center's in session, and most adults take their drug-dealing and its inherent violence to other corridors. Positive role models abound.
Paige Winn, the after-school activities director, stomached a pay cut when she swapped her Gwinnett Public Schools teaching job for work at the center. Off the clock, she's known to meander around the mobile homes and hang out with families.
"I just felt like (the children) needed more people to invest in their lives," Winn said. "I love this community."
While Hollandsworth said most kids at the center are legal citizens by birth, some can recall walking across the U.S. border. Patrol cops are privy to the undocumented status of parents, but aren't "actively looking to deport people," he said. The center's staff checks their politics at the neighborhood entrance.
"Our view on that is that we're here for the kids," Hollandsworth said.
Diane Hamby, Gwinnett Estates property manager, said the neighborhood claims about 200 occupied homes, each housing an average of roughly seven people. Between two and 10 kids reside in each trailer, she said.
Gwinnett Estates is a microcosm of mobile home parks across the county, where undocumented immigrants have mostly supplanted lower-income white families. They are attracted by low rents ($390 per month at Gwinnett Estates) and loose background checks, Hollandsworth said.
Twenty-eight mobile home parks with some 3,500 units are dotted throughout Gwinnett, with a highest concentration in the Buford area, according to a 2009 study by the county's Department of Planning and Development. Hollandsworth said he's planning to expand the program and is eyeing a similar Stone Mountain community.
The center is modeled, in part, after the North Charleston Dream Center, itself an echo of a larger program in Los Angeles called the Dream Center.
Sam Lesky, program director in North Charleston, said his hardscrabble neighborhood once ranked seventh in violent crime for U.S. cities and has dropped to 63rd since the center took off, according to FBI statistics.
"I applaud them for going into that neighborhood and trying to make a difference, to be a stable force," Lesky said of Hope Center staff, who consulted with him last year. "It's the places that nobody wants to go where we want to make a difference."
From instability, pride
Hamby, the property manager, recalls saying a prayer and fearing for her personal safety the first time she visited Gwinnett Estates three years ago. The center has afforded the community a sense of pride, she said.
"It's a total turnaround, that's what it is," Hamby said. "It's just a good place to be now. The kids are happy -- they have hope."
A sidebar success story is the middle-school soccer team, the Hope Center Football Club.
Its players idolize teams like Barcelona and yawn at gridiron football because, in the words of stocky 11-year-old defender Carlos Garcia, "I don't get it." There's a Bad News Bears gusto to the soccer club, competing in a Loganville rec league against more privileged youth. They sweat through practices and take winning to heart.
The chutzpah could be justified: Through two games, the club had outscored opponents 29 to 9.
For all the positives, not all traces of the gunfire two years ago could be scrubbed away.
A spiky-haired, baggy-jeans wearing Hope Center pupil named Ivan Hernandez, 8, vividly recalls that violent night. It roused him from bed in his trailer across the way.
"The (gunshots) were everywhere," a wide-eyed Hernandez said. "I told my sister, and she said, 'Just go to sleep, nobody cares about that.'"