COMPTON — I have moments of real terror when I think we may be losing this generation. We have got to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary.
--Eleanor Roosevelt, in support of the
Civilian Conservation Corps
Eleanor Roosevelt wasn't speaking about ex-gang members Chester Stewart and Teeva Vee Pito, but she might have been. Her fears 52 years ago for a Depression-era generation without jobs or hope remain the fears of this community today.
The Roosevelt Administration responded, in part, with 4 million public works jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The response of Compton, with its 40% teen-age unemployment rate, is an urban conservation corps, where Stewart, Pito, Nadine Allmon and 45 other local youths report early each morning to dig, rake and hoe in a five-month crash course in the work ethic.
The novel $160,000 city-run program is part of the California Conservation Corps (CCC), a 9-year-old revival of President Roosevelt's conservation corps. Trainees in the new Compton program live at home while learning how to get and hold jobs, rather than being boarded in 18 mostly rural camps throughout the state, as members of the California Conservation Corps generally are.
Desperate for Work
Like so many youths in Compton, 19-year-old Stewart was desperate for work by the time it finally came last month.
A 1982 graduate of Centennial High School, Stewart had spent almost three years trying to find any job.
"I filled out applications, but nobody ever called," said the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder. "My father said, 'Why don't you get a job?' And I said, 'I tried.'
"It's hard to find jobs around here," he said. "I'd just walk around town and kick around the house, rake the lawn and do nothin'."
Finally, about six weeks ago, he interviewed with Russell Jones, a city Recreation Department supervisor trained in the philosophy and methods of the CCC by which the Compton program is run.
Selected as One of 50 Recruits
Jones was impressed, and Stewart was
selected as one of 50 recruits, ages 18 to 23, from a field of several hundred applicants for the full-time, $3.35-an-hour jobs. (Two dropped out the first day, but the rest have stuck with it.)
Now, four weeks into the program, Jones has chosen Stewart as one of two leaders in a 12-person crew that will clean and repair four long-ignored city parks by mid-July. Three other crews have similar work schedules. Funds in Gov. George Deukmejian's proposed budget would extend the program--and four similar ones in cities in Northern California--for 12 months.
"Chester is a good guy and a workaholic," said Jones, 30, a former professional football player. "All he needed was a chance."
Stewart, in turn, is grateful.
"I was kind of slow in school," he said Tuesday, dressed like the rest of the crew in brown denim pants, khaki shirts with CCC shoulder patches and blue work caps.
"But these people took the time to help me out on a lot of things," he said. "They talked to me about how life was going to be when my parents weren't around to help me. I appreciate that, and I think everything's going to work out all right now."
As Stewart spoke, his crew, still sweating from 20 minutes of early morning exercises, dug grass from the infield of a baseball diamond at tiny Raymond Street Park.
"There is so much good coming out of this," said Jones. "Oaks Park was a disaster area and we're fixing it. And this park, the grass was so high over there that people would hide in it and rob people who came. Check the police reports. There were probably three robberies a week here."
'Look at Them Clowns'
Cleaning up the parks has boosted neighborhood pride and given corps members a sense of unity, said Jones.
"At the first park we went to, the (young) people would say, 'Hey, look at them clowns in them uniforms,' " said Jones. The workers acted embarrassed, he said.
But now when gawkers come around, they usually sit quietly and watch while the corps members continue to work and rarely exchange comments with them, said Jones.
Rather than being critical and condescending, most of their friends want to know how they can get work, said Stewart, Pito and Allmon, one of eight women in the local program.
"They say we're doing a good job," said Allmon, 19, a 1984 graduate of Compton High School. "And I say, hey, I've helped this park. I brought it a long way. I'm just relieved to have a job."
"My friends think this is all right," said Pito, a longtime gang member. "It's better than being on the streets, they say."
Pito, 18, came to the program with a reputation to live down, said Jones.
Some of the interviewers didn't want to accept him and his brother, Alakana, believing they would not stick with jobs that require rising at 5:30 a.m., exercises at 6:30, and a full day of back-breaking work after that.