Most youngsters stay at San Fernando Valley Juvenile Hall for only about three weeks. The hall is a holding pen of sorts, a place where young criminals await sentencing.
They range in age from 9 to 17. Some have been found guilty of minor charges like shoplifting or drug use, and they will soon go home. Others are murderers and rapists who soon will be sentenced to youth camps.
With 500 wards there at a time, the faces come and go almost as often as the bed sheets are changed. And three weeks doesn't seem like enough time to alter anyone's life. But there is a group that is trying to make a difference.
"We're offering a miracle," said Maria Elena Diaz, the director of chaplains at the hall. "Let's face it, a lot of these kids need one."
Volunteers From Churches
Diaz heads a group of volunteers called Chaplain's EAGLES (Encouraging Adolescents to Grow, Learn, Excel and Share). These are men and women from churches around Los Angeles who regularly visit the Sylmar hall. They bring games and snacks. Sometimes they preach the word of God. Sometimes they show movies. Sometimes they just listen.
"The first time I came here, I was scared stiff," said James Landfear, 76, a member of St. John's Presbyterian Church in West Los Angeles who has been volunteering at the hall for three years. "I found out that the only reason most of these kids are here is because nobody's ever loved them."
Said one teen-age ward who will soon be sent to a state camp to serve a two-year sentence: "A lot of us here are lonely for our parents. Sometimes we feel bad, and we don't have someone to go to. They cheer us up. They make us feel better about ourselves."
The Juvenile Hall is strikingly modern: red-brick buildings encircle a vast area of neatly trimmed lawns and a baseball diamond. There is a futuristic-looking chapel, and the rooms are new and clean.
But there is also a massive wall that surrounds the grounds, shutting out the world beyond. There are guards and glass-enclosed observation posts. The floors are bare. In the bathrooms, the toilets are out in the open.
22 Days Is Average
The wards, both boys and girls, wear plain gray sweat shirts and dungarees. Although the average stay is 22 days, some will be there only a few days, others for as long as three months.
"You get new kids every day," said Eleuteria Gomez-Smith, a director at the hall. "You get kids from racial gangs. You get kids from different social strata. You never know what you have."
When Diaz came to work at the hall almost 15 years ago, she was given responsibility for attracting volunteers. For about 20 years, the Los Angeles County Probation Department, which oversees juvenile detention halls and camps, has maintained a volunteer program with religious and community groups.
"The majority of our kids have some kind of handicap, whether it is social or educational," said Teena Lambert, the Probation Department's volunteer coordinator. "Many of them have not had good role models. Volunteers are role models. They bring in a variety of things that we hope will make the kids feel better about themselves."
Diaz went about her job by writing to local churches and religious organizations. Several responded. Over the years, the program has grown steadily. In 1986, hundreds of volunteers worked with more than 9,000 youths at the Sylmar hall, Diaz said.
The program now encompasses so many different denominational groups and volunteers that Diaz has scheduled various groups for visits on every day of the week.
"Although the churches are doing this program, it is not a religious program," she said. "It happens to be Christians who love children."
Among the churches involved are the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Sherman Oaks, The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Foursquare churches around the Valley and St. John's Presbyterian Church in West Los Angeles. Volunteers from these churches also make regular visits to several county youth-detention camps around Los Angeles.
The county runs thorough background checks on all volunteers--a few have been turned away because of criminal records--and provides them with 3 1/2 hours of training on how to deal with detention-hall youths.
There are certain important do's and don'ts. Nothing with staples or sharp plastic pieces can be brought into the hall because the youngsters might use these objects to carve tattoos on their arms. And the volunteers are instructed on how to get to security areas in case a fight breaks out.
6 to 15 a Nighjt
Thus warned, groups of six to 15 people will come to the hall to spend an hour or two on a week night.
"Some of these kids for the first time will learn what bingo is or sit down with an adult and talk to them without being yelled at," Diaz said. "We're teaching these kids the joys of living."