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Unity Games bring action to Mountain View community park

Attorneys triumphed over police officers in the 2022 San Diego Unity Games Saturday, bringing a little friendly competition to the community of Mountain View.

The trash talking started early Saturday morning with Randy Grossman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, predicting that his sand lot crew would take the trophy in the competition’s sixth year.

“For the first time, we’re actually going to win,” Grossman said, his words proving prophetic as the squad beat the San Diego Police Department in the games’ single-elimination softball tournament. Nonprofit SAY San Diego won the event’s inaugural three-on-three basketball contest.

Bragging rights aside, the point of this gathering was not really winning but rather seeing and being seen in a different setting.

As San Diego City Council president Sean Elo-Rivera explained, the idea of the Unity Games is to provide a space where community members and those who serve them can connect around fun rather than fraught situations.

“This is an opportunity for us to build community together, to get to know each other in a different way,” Elo-Rivera said.

Saturday’s event took place at Willie Henderson Sports Complex on 54th Street near Logan Avenue.

The grassy expanse with a recreation center, basketball courts and baseball diamonds has been known as a location where drug dealing and violence happen. Willie Henderson has seen three shootings since 2019, with the most recent occurring on Jan. 7, 2022.

But getting the community living around the park to come out and play has been hit and miss.

While there was significant participation from a range of organizations including Bridge Church and nonprofits such as Project A.W.A.R.E. and the National Conflict Resolution Center, there was no team entry representing the neighborhood itself, and there were few who live in the area who came out to watch the action unfold.

Manny Del Toro, captain of the police department’s Southeastern Division, said that a two-year pandemic hiatus surely set the event back some. A holiday gift give away at the same location, he added, had significant participation.

“Everyone is just trying to contribute their strength to make it a better place,” Del Toro said.

Overcoming the location’s reputation, added Sergio Gonzalez, a neighborhood resident and member of team DiverCityHeights, is a tall order. A member of the neighborhood’s community violence response team, Gonzalez said he regularly knocks on doors to learn residents’ concerns and finds that there is trepidation about going to Willie Henderson.

“They tell us ‘We’re scared to come out, we’re scared to take our kids to the park,’” Gonzalez said. “They see the drug activity, they see the gangs, they hear gunshots, and they’re scared to bring their kids here.”

Turning that perception around, he said, requires more than a few events once per year. It will take a lot of positive presence, he said, to change community sentiment.

Reginald Washington, founder and CEO of Project A.W.A.R.E., an organization that works with youth to find peaceful ways to deal with conflict, agreed with the notion that change won’t occur with a one-and-done approach. Losing five years of momentum to the pandemic, he said, was a particular shame given that gaining the community’s trust and participation was always expected to be a years-long endeavor.

“If we think after one time or two times that everything is going to be copacetic, we’re fooling ourselves,” Washington said. “If we get 10 or 15 kids this time, maybe next time we get 20 or 30.

“We have to be in this for the long run.”

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