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Su Su, holding her daughter Glory, 6 months, left, and son Evan, 4, center, wait for the Room To Bloom program start with Alez'e Brown and her daughter Jamyiah, 2, right, at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, June 11, 2014. Room To Bloom is a free, drop-in playgroup in its first year where parents and their kids can come together to play, learn and socialize in a safe environment. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- Shots fired in broad daylight across the street from Maria Peña's house in East Oakland, trapping her family indoors and throwing their plans to attend the A's game out the window.

The drive-by prompted daughter Samantha Garcia to ask what the pops were.

Now the 4-year-old knows they were gunshots, and Peña says that disturbs her. Samantha will perk up her ears and say, "That's a shooting, Mommy."

In the last month, Peña can count four shootings in her neighborhood. The violence is so bad that she does not allow any playing in the front yard.

"We play in the house or in the backyard," she said. "We also don't go to Oakland parks. I'll drive to Alameda or to the hills. Oakland parks are full of kids doing drugs and drinking. You're just not safe. Someone can drive-by. And in the summer, there's more daylight."

But now Samantha can play outside with about 25 other children. Room to Bloom is a free preschoollike playgroup at Castlemont High School for children from a few months to 5 years old.

It also serves as a safe haven for Oakland parents whose children are too young for school but want to provide them with a space to play and learn.

Zacoria Hills brings her 2-year-old and said the children on her street bully her son and get into trouble.


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"It's like they're trying to act like their dads. They're in the street life, fighting, selling drugs, standing on corners," Hills said. "The kids come out with their water guns playing boys in the hood."

After burying one cousin, she found out another cousin was shot and killed two weeks ago just around the corner from her house, where her son's father was killed last September.

Hills has been coming to Room to Bloom for less than a month. But when her cousin was shot, Marcie Meadows, the beloved coordinator, offered her kind words and prayed with Hills.

"Oh, that prayer was needed," Hills said. "I love coming here. My son loves coming here. He talks more. He likes the story time and likes reading a lot more now."

Meadows said that Hills and Peña's experiences aren't unique.

"Oftentimes, there really isn't a safe area where kids can run and be kids and play," she said. "It's a place where parents feel safe and where kids can be nourished and social."

At Room to Bloom, children do arts and crafts, read in a circle while sitting on their mothers' laps or run around, often while screaming, or laughing. The difference is sometimes hard to tell. Many of the children have come out of their shells, Meadows said.

Outside they play house and race one another down a concrete slope on colorful plastic tricycles and in cars.

"For this age group, the Castlemont Corridor is a desert in the summer," Meadows said. Which is why the 1-year-old program is expanding into the summer, starting June 30.

When Lotus Bloom Child and Family Resource Center started the East Oakland playgroup last year, fewer than five children came. Now Room to Bloom is about to burst at the seams. Meadows said she expects more parents will want to come in the summer, so she started a waitlist.

Word about the program has spread like wildfire among the moms who tell one another about the educational benefits but also the resources Room to Bloom connects families with, such as family care and community leadership opportunities.

"It's more fun here than at home," said 5-year-old Belen Castaneda.

Her mother, Guadalupe Alday, said that Belen and her twin sister, Laurita, love coming to the playgroup so much that she even asked their father if they could switch visitation times so she could bring them Monday and Wednesday mornings.

Room to Bloom is that desert flower. Inside the doors, parents know their children are safe, one teacher said.

"There are positive things in Oakland like this," Peña said. "Regardless of what's going on here, I love Oakland."

Lotus Bloom
What: Nonprofit offering early childhood programs and playgroups in high-need Oakland neighborhoods
Where: 2008 Park Blvd., Oakland
Information: http://lotusbloomfamily.org