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Latchkey Kids Find Friends as Near as the Phone

September 06, 1987|KATHEE YAMAMOTO | Community Correspondent

A 10-year-old boy was home alone. Both of his parents work. He had just had a fight with his best friend and had no one to talk to about it.

A 9-year-old girl had a crush on a boy at school but was too shy to tell her friends. She, too, was home alone.

Another boy, 11 years old, was not alone, but his father was sleeping after one of his regular alcohol binges.

This summer, many South Bay youngsters in such situations have called the Gardena Valley YWCA Phone Friends, a phone service for latchkey children.

In operation since last fall, the service expanded its hours this summer. Until Friday, children may call 327-7558, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. When school starts the following week, the service will be available from 3 to 6 p.m.

Antidote to Loneliness

The program was started to ease the fears, loneliness and boredom of children who are home after school without adult supervision, officials said. Citing a 1986 United Way of Los Angeles study, they said that more than 3,500 elementary school children in the Gardena and Lawndale areas are alone after school but child-care programs can accommodate only 300 of them after school.

"We get kids who just want to talk," said Joan Youngblood, who was coordinator of the program until recently. "A few have had serious problems, like child abuse, and we try to get help for them even when they're reluctant to give us information. Callers are usually only asked for their first names. But in cases of abuse, we are obligated by law to report this to the Department of Social Services, and we have to tell the child that.

"The children who call (about abuse) don't want to get their parents into trouble. They just don't know what to do or where else to turn."

But most young callers ask for jokes and stories. "It's very rewarding for most people to read stories to children, even over the phone, because the child usually responds.

A stack of joke and story books line a wall in the small room at the back of the YWCA's bright yellow building, where volunteers answer the 25 to 30 calls that come in each day.

Most of the volunteers are Gardena High School students who have gone through a 10-hour training course. The new program coordinator, Sheryl Sabihon, said more volunteers are needed.

On First-Name Basis

Volunteers use only their first names when they take calls so they won't have to worry about youthful callers tracking them down at home.

Elliot, a 14-year-old ninth-grader, is the youngest Phone Friends volunteer. "We usually ask that the volunteers be of high school age or older," Youngblood says, "but Elliot is an exceptional young man."

A soft-spoken teen-ager, Elliot has been called upon to answer questions that might stymie an adult. "An 8-year-old girl called and wanted to know, 'How do we grow?' Elliot recalls. "I told her that hormones start producing stuff that makes you grow, that produces more cells."

Another volunteer, 17-year-old Kevin, says that he gets a lot of requests for jokes. "There's one boy who calls every day, so he already knows all the jokes. I try to come up with something new for him."

Fifteen-year-old volunteer Kelly said most callers want to discuss personal problems. "One girl called and said that her mom had gotten held up in a store--she just wanted someone to talk to."

But, in taking Phone Friend calls, adds Kelly, "You have to be careful not to give advice. You have to listen, let them talk and solve their own problems."

One of the most asked-for volunteers is Ed, a 65-year-old businessman known to Phone Friend regulars as "Grandpa Ed."

"I was talking to a boy, and I asked him if he had a grandpa . . . and he said, 'No--but I have one now.' I loved that call!

Rewarding Job

"I'm at the age where I want to put back a little bit of what I got out of this world," Ed continued. "I get a reward when a kid starts opening up. Sometimes, you get repeat calls from the same kid, so you know his age, his cousins and everything, so you can pick up the conversation where you left off. This is a good feeling--you've established some rapport with a kid . . . it's just a voice on the phone, but at least he's got someone he can talk to."

The YWCA said Phone Friends is endorsed by, among other agencies, the Gardena elementary schools and PTA groups, the Lawndale City Council, the Lawndale school superintendent and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The service's $14,500 budget, which goes for the coordinator's salary and phone charges, is supplied by a variety of corporate and community sources.

But support for the service is not unanimous.

Diane Tasaka, project director of School Age Child Care for the United Way of Los Angeles, said there are mixed feelings about Phone Friends and similar so-called "warm line" services among child care providers.

"Some people feel that government and businesses are not doing their part for latchkey kids," said Tasaka. These phone lines are viewed by some as an easy way out, avoiding certain responsibilities in this area."

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