Mentor fighting to keep dance studio for hurting teens open
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org @dencrosby October 5, 2013 10:16PM
Martin Luna, center, comforts Oscar Mondragon, after the teenage was released from the hospital for treatment following an assault. Luna and his partner, Jose Espinoza, right, opened a dance studio in Aurora to help mentor struggling teens. | Denise Crosby ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 7, 2013 10:27AM
When I met Oscar Mondragon for the first time last week, he looked like a kid who had been beaten up by life.
Certainly he’d been beaten.
The 16-year-old East Aurora High School student had just been released from Presence Mercy Medical Center, where he’d undergone surgery to repair his shattered nose. His eyes were still swollen and bloodshot, all the result of a vicious attack at the hands of someone who perhaps didn’t like the fact he is gay.
Aurora police say there are witnesses, along with a suspect, but not enough evidence to indicate this was a hate crime in what is still an ongoing investigation.
The beating took place on the evening of Sept. 21 in front of St. Nicholas Church, immediately following a Quinceañera retreat Oscar had been attending for a friend. Still in visible pain from his face injuries, the battered teen lay on the couch inside Simply Destinee Dance Studio on Highland Avenue, the only place he felt was truly his safe haven.
The studio, opened by Auroran Martin Luna in March, is named in memory of Luna’s niece, Destinee Oliva, a Waubonsie Valley 16-year-old found dead in her bedroom in May 2010. While the coroner could not rule Destinee’s death a suicide, Luna said his niece had been on high doses of seizure disorder medication, and the family is convinced it led to this fun-loving teen who dreamed of a career in music and dance taking her own life.
Luna, a 30-year-old photographer for JC Penney, has long been a fan of dance himself. He started a sideline business teaching lessons for Quinceañeras a couple of years ago. But the more he got to know teens in the community, the more he realized so many of them were hurting and needed a place they could go where they felt accepted and loved.
Simply Destinee, he says, became that place. In the six months the studio has been open, Luna has seen its numbers swell from a half dozen kids to over 50.
Those teens include Oscar, who became tearful as he told me about the night two years ago when he finally got the courage to reveal his sexuality to his mother. She was surprisingly supportive, he added. But she’s a single working mom with a lot on her plate. When I spoke with Catalina Mondragon from Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge last week, her youngest child Jonathan, who turned 3 Saturday, was about to begin chemotherapy for brain cancer. And it’s not surprising she’s running short on the emotional energy needed to help her oldest navigate his roller-coaster life, including the recent assault.
And so Oscar began spending more time at the dance studio with Luna and his partner, Jose Espinoza … as did so many other teens. The dance troupe has slowly begun to emerge into the community: Most recently, members performed at last month’s Puerto Rican Heritage Fest; and on Saturday they danced at a health expo at Fox Valley Nutrition near Westfield Fox Valley Mall in Aurora.
But Simply Destinee is not just about dance. And it is not just about gay teens. “There are so many hurting kids out there who are depressed and suicidal,” says Luna, including those who are neglected and abused. And he wants to reach as many as he can; not only to teach them steps on a dance floor but steps that will help them build character, a Christian-based faith and success well beyond high school.
Adds Luna, “I tell these kids, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not worth something.”
For Oscar, that’s a message he desperately needs to hear. “It’s about being accepted,” he insists, “for who we are.”
Luna has quickly won the support of local youth leaders, including Uni Camacho, supervisor for All For One Mentoring, which works with community groups to find role models for at-risk kids. “He has such empathy, such passion,” she says of Martin. “And he truly is a role model who wants nothing more than to help these kids.”
Alicia Flores, who works alongside husband Gilbert, pastor at Heart of Worship Church, applauds Martin for embracing “kids who have no place else to go” and “making them feel as if they belong. What he does, she says, “is special.”
It’s also costly. Luna and Espinoza don’t charge a dime for dance lessons. They also get the teens engaged in many other activities that keep them off the streets, said Flores. Plus, “we are always feeding them,” notes Luna, a diabetic who recently lost a hundred pounds. “It may be the only decent meal they get.”
To keep the studio doors open, Luna and Espinoza gave up their own apartment. Because it would require an occupancy permit to live in the building, they keep their clothes in a storage closet there, eat from a microwave or hot plate and sleep in their van. “Anything,” vows Martin, “to keep this place going.”
But all this sacrifice may not be enough. Despite a recent food fundraiser, “we don’t have the money” for this month’s rent,” says Luna. He realizes in order to keep this dream alive, he needs to become a non-profit to qualify for grants and other funding. But a 501c3 application costs money, too, more than they can afford now.
On Friday, an obviously distraught Luna told me the studio is closing its doors, with plans to move the studio temporarily to the basement of Heart of Worship while he figures out how to keep his dream from fading.
“People tell me I lead with my heart, and it is wearing me down,” Luna says. “But my biggest fear is not being here for these kids. They have had so many broken promises … I need to find a way to keep going.”