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Children have snacks of cereal and apples at the Lotus Bloom Child & Family Resource Center on the Castlemont High School campus in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. A 7-by-12 block "Best Babies Zone" has been formed in the East Oakland neighborhood near Castlemont. The goal is to improve the health and prospects of young children being raised there, and hopefully break the cycle of poverty by giving young children better opportunities at a critical stage of their early development. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- Four-year-old Dylan Moreno is an energetic and curious kid who yearns to be outside, but his mother won't take him to the park down the street.

"He loves to play," said Alejandra Moreno. "The park's close, but I don't feel comfortable."

That kind of parental fear pervades the East Oakland neighborhood surrounding Verdese Carter Park, near where seven men were shot Monday and a 2-year-old was hit by a stray bullet in October. It's why one group is creating a 7-by-12 block "Best Babies Zone" to improve the lives of children being raised here.

Guiding the project is a growing body of science showing the foundation for a healthy and successful life begins forming in infancy, and even in the womb.

"The opportunity to play has a lot of impacts on the biological functioning that will allow a child to succeed," said Bina Shrimali, a health equity manager for the Alameda County Public Health Department. "The symptoms of not investing in children -- you can see them in a community much later when kids are falling behind in school and then don't have the opportunities to get a job and contribute to the economy."

A partnership led by the health department is marshaling public and private resources and focusing them on one troubled area near Castlemont High School. The average neighborhood resident's life expectancy is about 72 years, nearly10 years lower than in wealthier census tracts just up the hill, according to county statistics.

The "Best Babies Zone" aims to chip away at that gap. Among the project's earliest achievements is a colorful new "Early Childhood Hub" that opened this fall for play groups and parenting workshops inside a converted high school classroom.

On a recent weekday, Dylan and his 8-month-old sister, Melissa, joined several other neighborhood children accompanied by their parents and workers from Lotus Bloom Family Resource Center, the group running the free playtime. Set amid the faux medieval turrets and fanciful 1920s architecture of the Castlemont campus, the new hub mimics the experiences -- imaginative play, movement and language-learning -- offered at costly play centers and preschools in more affluent neighborhoods.

"I love how they work with the kids and speak with him," Alejandra Moreno said as her son read a book with a Lotus Bloom worker.

Growing up in the Mexican state of Michoacan, Moreno said her own parents had no qualms about letting her wander outside and interact with neighbors. But the reality here is different, said the former furniture seamstress who is now caring for her two kids full-time.

Moreno was home on Oct. 18 when a 2-year-old boy was shot and wounded by stray gunfire while he was playing on the sidewalk just outside her house near 94th Avenue and Sunnyside Street.

Fortunately, she said, her kids are still too young to recognize the sound of gunshots. But when she takes them to a park, at least twice weekly, she skips Verdese Carter and drives across the border to San Leandro.

Being exposed to neighborhood violence can impair a child's brain development and leave lifelong emotional scars, Shrimali said.

Creating a protected bubble where kids can play is just one goal of the "Best Babies Zone," a partnership of the county, school district and nonprofit groups such as First 5 Alameda County, the Oakland Fund for Youth and Families and Youth UpRising.

Economic investment is also on the agenda. Of the 57 storefronts that line the zone, mostly on MacArthur Boulevard, all but 16 are vacant. The project is consulting with landlords and merchants interested in revitalization.

Among the inspirations is the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City, which has worked since the 1990s to improve academic achievement and break the cycle of generational poverty by providing kids a network of resources from birth to college.

Raya, 3, whose mother, Yolanda, preferred not to give her last name, chases a bubble at the Lotus Bloom Child & Family Resource Center on the Castlemont
Raya, 3, whose mother, Yolanda, preferred not to give her last name, chases a bubble at the Lotus Bloom Child & Family Resource Center on the Castlemont High School campus in Oakland on Nov. 13, 2013. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

"So much of the science shows us that investing in children, reducing the disadvantages at the earliest stages, we have the power to reduce intractable health disparities," Shrimali said. "Things that develop 30 or 40 years down the road are often linked to what happens early in life."

Too many children Yolanda Monroe knows are just "sitting at home" and watching television in the critical years before they enter public school.

Not wanting her daughter to fall behind and miss out on socialization, Monroe enrolled the shy girl at the new Castlemont play group as soon as she heard about it.

"Now she says her name. Now she's talking more," Monroe said. "That little bit of time makes a difference. If you love your child, if you want to educate your child, this is the place to be."

Too few parents know about the opportunity, Monroe said. County health workers say they have been visiting laundromats, food banks and a new monthly community market to share the news.

Matt O'Brien covers Alameda County. Contact him at 510-208-6429.

Castlemont Community Market
Among the projects associated with the new "Best Babies Zone" in East Oakland is a monthly community market with art, jewelry and activities for kids. The next one meets from noon to 3 p.m. on Dec. 7 at 8501 MacArthur Blvd., in front of Castlemont High School. For more information, contact Mariela Uribe at 510-208-1223 or mariela.uribe@acgov.org.