It's a slow Tuesday for Michelle Silva, a recreational aide at the Pala Youth Center near the northern border of San Diego County. Most of the center's charges, which number as many as 70 during the school year but drop off a bit during the summer months, are off on a field trip.
Pala is about 17 miles due north of Escondido, or about six miles east along Route 76 from Interstate 15. The center itself is a half-mile down Pala Mission Road, a local bypass that splits off of Route 76 in front of the Pala casino. The center is a modern stucco building, with two large main rooms and several smaller rooms, which appear to be offices, branching off the play room.
Pala says that "most" of their 918 enrolled members live on the reservation, but the latest census data shows a population of over 1300 — that would indicate a members:non-tribal makeup of about 2:1.
The two dozen or so attendees of today's program mostly gather in the computer lab, while a few meander through the rec room, its bright purple and lime green walls playing host to racks of books, toys, games, and student art projects. A pool table and several other low-slung tables surrounded by empty chairs dot the space. Silva is in the back, gathering up a pile of blocks scattered across a multicolored rug.
Outside, a van from Feeding San Diego pulls up between the modern youth center and Mission San Antonio de Pala church, an asistencia (auxiliary facility) of the San Luis Rey Catholic mission built in 1816 to minister to the natives. A staffer begins unloading sack lunches and bins of produce — part of a new program to provide meals to populations on the county's reservation lands. About half of the kids on the day I am there go out for the food.
"We started in with Feeding America this summer, and it really does help some of the families who are struggling, especially in the summer when the kids aren't in school and getting their lunches there," Silva explains, back inside after the toys are stowed. "I'll start sending the kids out at 11:30 and we'll see what we've got today."
Like many other reservations, Pala could be considered a food desert — located more than 10 miles from a traditional grocery store. According to the USDA, Native populations face roughly twice as much food insecurity, diabetes, and obesity as the general population. Still, aren't the residents of casino-operating reservations relatively wealthy as compared to their counterparts elsewhere?
"No, no, no," Silva insists. At least not necessarily. "A lot of the families — I'm not a tribal member — aren't [getting payments from the casino]. It's a big mix, there are plenty of people here who aren't tribal members.
"I'd say it's split down the middle. A lot of families do work," she continues, even including those who receive stipends of as much as $150,000 annually. "My boss is a tribal member but she's working. They're setting examples for their kids that money isn't just handed to everyone."
Those who aren't blessed with the tribal designation such as Silva, who moved with five of her children to a mobile home on the reservation two years ago when she took her job at the youth center, have been quick to take advantage of the food program since its launch last month.
The program serves two other, poorer North County tribes - the Santa Ysabel between Ramona and Julian (whose attempt at a casino went bankrupt) and the Mesa Grande, a non-gaming tribe.
"Tuesdays and Thursdays we get fresh fruit and vegetables, which helps out a lot," she continues. "For example, I got a bunch of squash and was able to make two dinners out of it for me and the kids, and it really saves my budget. The kids love it when they get like peaches and nectarines, they're good ones, huge like softballs. That kind of stuff is expensive at the store, we don't get a lot of it.
"It also helps families who aren't here in the day program, we've sent flyers to let them know and there are several who'll come down for food in the park."
Life on the reservation, though, presents challenges for the former Escondido resident.
"It was kind of a culture shock for me, where I came from [in Escondido] everyone has to work," Silva says. "Sometimes kids will come up and ask if my kids can go to the store with them and I've got to tell them we haven't got the money. They're just like 'What do you mean? Just go to the bank and get more!' Oh sweetie, it doesn't work that way with me.
"I don’t have a car, so I've got to chip in with neighbors for gas money or call a Lyft or an Uber. It costs about $30 to get into town, maybe $20 if I'm going with neighbors."
Town, in this case, is Temecula. Silva could use public transit to get to Escondido, but says the bus trip takes an hour and a half each way, and buses are on a contracted schedule, even during the day.
"It took a bit getting used to the quietness, but I like not having sirens going all the time. I really love it up here, I think it's good for the kids," Silva, a single mom, goes on. "In the city you couldn't ride bikes, couldn't play ball in our old apartment complex. Up here, they get to be kids — my family gets to participate in inter-tribal sports, they've played basketball, football. Two of my daughters are going to try out for cross country this year. So they get some of the benefits the tribal kids get, even though we're non-tribal they're able to participate. I love that, because in the city you have to come up with $400 or $500 to play a sport, and I couldn't do it for five children.
"We only pay $5 for our kids to be here for the whole year," she says of the youth center program. The rest of the cost is funded by grant monies and the tribe.
Back in the grassy park fronting the youth center and the mission children run out in groups, collecting sack lunches (today's menu: muffins, yogurt parfait, fruit salad) and bags of plump nectarines to take home. Shrieking and giggling, they dart back out of the punishing inland sun toward the air-conditioned confines of the youth center to dig in.
Having embraced the rural life, Silva isn't likely to give it up.
"I do plan to stay around. I like it, the kids love it, it's a great community."