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'Gentle Giant' Helps Shape Young Lives

August 20, 1987|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

De Wayne Jett recalls the day 18 years ago when he watched LeRoy Chase Jr. break up a fight between two youths at the Boys Club in Pacoima.

"He did the physical separation," Jett said. "Then he had the guys talk out their problems. He said there's got to be a better solution. He was able to leave the room, and those guys got along just fine after that."

Jett, who grew up in Pacoima, went on to become a college football star, professional wide receiver, and, today, an Encino businessman. The man Jett first called Mr. Chase and now calls his friend was a role model every step of the way.

"Coming from the environment I did, he showed me that there's a lot of fun in the world outside of doing bad or illegal things, drugs or gangs or violence," Jett, 30, said recently.

Influential Counselor

Chase, whom some call "a gentle giant," has influenced scores of young people during his 19 years at what is now the Boys & Girls Club of San Fernando Valley. Today, the relentlessly positive executive director presides over a sparkling $2-million facility.

The 26,000-square-foot center, which opened this year at Glenoaks and Van Nuys boulevards in Pacoima, serves 850 youngsters. Many of them come from a tough part of the lower-income communities of Pacoima, San Fernando and the northeast San Fernando Valley. Some live in housing projects or ramshackle homes; most routinely face the temptations of drug abuse and gang membership.

"They may have to walk through a group of drug dealers, but when they get to the Boys Club, LeRoy shows them the other side of being a male," community activist Rose Castaneda said.

Chase himself has two battle scars on his right arm from bottles hurled at him during the turbulent early years by youths he says were junkies. Amid a landscape of despair, for many the Boys Club & Girls Club are a beacon of hope.

"It's a place to stay off the streets," said Danny Vicente of San Fernando. "If I wasn't here, I'd be out cruising or at home doing nothing."

Vicente, 17, who was born in the Philippines, was recently honored as the club's 1987 "Youth of the Year." A varsity basketball and football player, he runs the club's library program and is nearly as much a fixture as the pool tables and basketball hoops.

The new building and successes like De Wayne Jett and Danny Vicente are measures of Chase's impact. But there are others, including the club's prodigious growth.

It was founded in 1966 as the Pacoima Boys Club by the B'nai Brith Honor Lodge of Tarzana and Encino, which sought to do something positive for minority youths to defuse community tension after the Watts riots. The club's first home was a large room on Van Nuys Boulevard that had housed a women's club, a Moose Lodge and a Chamber of Commerce.

Chase was completing his senior year on a football scholarship at the University of Utah when he was recruited to become the club's second executive director in 1968. The first director, Shapiro said, was fired when it was learned he was "a closet member of the Black Panthers" and was urging youths at the club to join the radical group.

Raised in South-Central Los Angeles

Chase, the oldest of two sons in a working-class family, had been born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles. A four-sport high school athlete, he had worked for the Salt Lake City Parks and Recreation Department while attending college. But this was a far cry from what awaited him in Pacoima.

The original building, constructed in the 1920s, was "on its last legs," Chase said. It had dim lighting, shuttered windows, little security and no air conditioning. The facility would have practically fit into the new club's gym.

The annual budget was $18,074. Chase's staff was a single Vista volunteer. There were 44 members.

Chase said he chased alcohol-drinking kids from the club's back door. Typewriters and adding machines disappeared during six burglaries in the first two years. Once, thieves broke in through the roof, stole a saw, power drill and other shop equipment, and sold it two blocks away for a few dollars for liquor.

But gradually, as the club gained credibility, neighbors began to keep an eye on the building. They would shine lights, shout or call the police when they saw shadowy would-be intruders. And membership started to climb.

Today, with 850 people from 7 to 17 enrolled, there are eight full-time and five part-time staffers, many of whom are former members. The annual budget is $450,000. The United Way contributes 20%, and U.S. Community Development funds 15%. The rest comes from fund-raising events, group and individual contributions and the $12 annual membership fee.

The new building features 43 skylights, a blue-tiled roof, an air-conditioned gymnasium with a maple basketball court, weight-lifting rooms, computers, a photography lab and library.

On a recent weekday, the club was a cacophony of young voices amid a whirl of frenetic activity. "It appears we do have a few kids in the building," Chase joked as he made his way through his charges.

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