Cudahy community center suffers computer theft

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

CUDAHY — Robotic and coding classes for children at the Cudahy Tech Center are in jeopardy following the theft of all laptops from the computer lab inside the Lugo Park Community Center New Year’s Eve. 

Apparently, the burglars first targeted the center on Dec. 30, when an employee surveying the city-owned building found that the lock of a side door to the left of the main entrance had been tampered with. 

However, since nothing else was missing, the employee failed to report it to supervisors or to the police. 

The following day the computer lab was ransacked.

Emma Hernandez, CEO of Southeast Community Development Center, the nonprofit that operates the computer lab, said the lost equipment has a value of $25,000 to $30,000. 

The list of missing items includes 14 laptops equipped with software to code robotics, a special wheeled cabinet and two large flat TVs used to display the students’ work.

All the laptops were also used for computer literacy classes for children and adults.

“Kids open up baking soda, use baking powder to do engineering projects,” Hernandez said. “They mix things and make things happen. Our organization has been doing robotics for the last 12 years.” 

In addition, printer toners and office supplies were stolen, but according to Hernandez the burglars left behind expensive tablets used to assemble robots, likely because they ignored what they are good for.

According to Cudahy Councilwoman Elizabeth Alcantar, the site was hit on New Year’s night. 

“It’s not typical to have security 24/7, other than L.A. County sheriff’s deputies,” said Alcantar in reference to police services rendered. “The investigation is still ongoing.” 

Once Hernandez and staff tallied the stolen goods, Cudahy and county Supervisor Janice Hahn donated $5,000 each to support their replacement. 

And in the spirit to recover from the setback sooner, Hernandez and community leaders held a fundraiser Jan. 15 at the park, where those attending donated $10 for a meal that included hamburgers, chips and sodas. 

Alcantar and Maywood Councilman Eddie de la Riva sponsored the fundraiser. 

At the end of the event, Hernandez collected $160 in cash and $680 in online donations from residents in Cudahy, Bell and some from as far away as Hacienda Heights. 

While the community reels from the theft, students like Cristina Zaldivar and her sister Sofia agreed the burglary threatens the robotics studies. 

Both elementary school students attended last summer’s tech workshops at the computer lab and formed tech teams alongside other students to learn how to use computer circuits, coding with lights, assemble Lego robots and be part of other science, engineering and math projects. 

In 2023, the sisters looked forward to reunite with friends and take on more challenging projects as part of the Lego Challenge League, a combination of coding skills applied to in-house built-in robots competing among teams. 

“There’s been a lot of work going into that program,” said Sofia amid the cacophony of sounds from DJ Shneaky, who donated two hours of music in support of the fundraiser, and adults plotting how to better protect the center and the community from criminals. 

“We had to code in Java,” Sofia said. “But when the computers were stolen, we couldn’t do that anymore. We are waiting for the computers to be replaced to start coding again.”

Before the break-in, a lineup of diverse after-school classes were scheduled for Mondays through Thursdays from 2:30 to 4 p.m., and from 4 to 6 p.m. 

They entailed homework help for second to fifth-grade students, mad science labs using research methods where kids make bottle rockets and slime, Coding 2 and basics of robotics. 

Although the Southeast Community Development Center carries liability insurance, Hernandez said the coverage does not account for salaries the nonprofit already arranged to pay to four instructors from a fellows program at Cal State Los Angeles and one supervisor.

“These people need to pay their bills and we don’t want to lose them to do the training,” she said. 

A surveillance camera inside the lab captured portions of the incident, but the burglars tampered with the alarm and unplugged the device, Hernandez said. 

The police are working with the video security company to access the recording and try to identify the culprits. 

Despite the lab’s main door lock was not vandalized, the burglars deactivated an entry alarm and sensors protecting big glass rectangles near the door. 

A cigarette butt left on the scene is being analyzed by a forensic team, Hernandez added. 

“This nonprofit set up this computer lab so that young people here in Cudahy and across Southeast LA could have the same opportunities that students in wealthy communities have,” Supervisor Hahn said in a statement. “This burglary was a setback, but I hope that with these grants and the support they are receiving from the community, we can get the Cudahy Tech Center back up and running.” 

Lugo Park Community Center is a one-story facility that also hosts a church, and is used to store equipment for maintenance. It faces a soccer field, a large brick-and mortar canopy with tables and benches for people to host picnics and children slides.  

In the wake of the theft, Cudahy Mayor Daisy Lomeli said the city is teaming up with Hahn for a matching contribution to replace the stolen items. 

“We are grateful for the SCDC’s work in our community and look forward to supporting them to resume tech classes because we know our youth are worthy of these opportunities,” Lomeli said. 

       
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