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La Ballona School

Meet Excited Future, Way Future, Customers of Culver City Volvo

By Ari L. Noonan @ 3:00 PM June 15, 2011

It was Car Dealer Paradise this morning at Culver City Volvo ? their glistening showroom, at the northwest corner of Sepulveda and Washington boulevards, suddenly was flooded with customers of the futuristic kind.

For amazed second-graders from nearby La Ballona School, their eyes were almost as wide as their exclaiming faces.

Owner Sal Gonzales, his own face ashine, led the almost disbelieving students among glistening, brilliantly illumined cars so large, so powerful and so handsome that they may have come from another galaxy.

With one of his salesman seated comfortably inside a gleaming black convertible, Mr. Gonzales said to the children of LaBallona in fatherly language, "Look what he can do by pressing just one button." Magically, the top began to rise in two separate sections. The longest audience reaction was "Ahhh," and the shortest was "ooohhhhh."

The kids were not car-shopping, but their eyes and their hearts were.

At four separate times this morning, Mr. Gonzales led groups of 15 to 18 students on a meandering tour of his dealership, along narrow corridors where walls were decorated with action shots of his three young children, testimonies and drawings by previous touring students. They ambled through the mountain-tall Parts Dept. with its thousand miniscule shelves containing oddly-shaped pieces, and another wall featuring gadgetry for sale.

The LaBallona students, chaperoned by teachers and parents, behaved magnificently, perfectly following softly given directions. On cue from time to time, the entire chorus would say good morning to a Culver City Volvo manager. Well trained, they tidily confined their excitement to a low buzz, their indoors voices.

Happens Every Year

This morning's series of student tours is an annual exercise by Mr. Gonzales, he explains, part of his give-back-to-the-community campaign that actually is an extension of a national literacy program.

He said that every fall he participates in Operation Outreach, a program that encourages and accents literacy. Mr. Gonzales designated LaBallona to sponsor, a school where 50 percent of students are English learners.

"Each year, I purchase two reading books for every student n the second grade," he said. "The idea is to help them with their literacy. All students receive two books that they get to read, take home and get to own.

"A lot of these children have brothers and sisters who already have been here. That's really neat because I keep changing books so I don't repeat the same book in a family."

How Students Benefit

What is the value of 7- and 8-year-olds touring a car dealership?

"Part of it is the professionalism," says Mr. Gonzales, who isn't exaggerating. He routinely dresses as if he just stepped from the pages of GQ or the show window of Brooks Brothers.

"When I go over to LaBallona and introduce myself and introduce my wife, Anne Murphy Gonzales, the students see a real person. I don't necessarily want them to see us as role models, but as figures. I speak a little bit of Spanish to them, to try and make them feel comfortable. My wife is a former teacher, and that helps because they can relate.

"I tell the children that I want them to follow their dreams, to learn to read, and just as the saying goes, 'Read to Achieve.'

"I want them to come here and see everybody working, to see how we take care of our customers, just as I said, as a figurehead."

Rather than himself, Mr. Gonzales devotes more of his talk to his family, the one he grew up in and the one he and his wife are raising, and he stresses how both he and his wife are products of USC.

Mainly, he wants to plan a single permanent seed:

"I want them to know education is the answer to an opportunity, not the only answer, but an answer."

This kind of community consciousness may help explain how a car dealership endures in an environment when many entrepreneurs are dousing the lights and going home.

What started in 1961 as Westside Volvo, that Mr. Gonzales changed to Culver City Volvo, celebrates two birthdays next month:

Mr. Gonzales' eighth as owner, and the dealership's 50th, under only two different owners.