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'Saints' Brighten Poverty Outlook With the Arts

September 26, 1989|JOHN H. LEE | Times Staff Writer

The money continues to trickle in, enough to keep Evelyn and Tommy Roberts' Los Angeles-based Young Saints Scholarship Foundation going. For the past 31 years, the-husband-and-wife team has been making do with a modest operating budget as they run a program in which students ages 5 to 21 swap "a mind-set of poverty" for training in voice, dance, drama and television production.

The hope is that the students will learn not only skills that will give them a needed boost in job-seeking but also a different way of looking at themselves.

"Some of the kids come in shuffling and mumbling. You can't understand a word they are saying. . . . The whole thing is to get their minds working," Evelyn Roberts said.

Since founding the Young Saints, the Robertses--who have performed popular and gospel music since the 1930s--have devoted all of their time to running the program and booking engagements for the approximately 150 Saints.

The program held its annual open house Sunday, giving the 1989 class of Saints a chance to show off what they have learned in drama, song and dance.

"We spend as much time on arts training as we do trying to reverse the defeatism and self-depreciation that goes on," Tommy Roberts said.

The Young Saints program, which is run out of the Second Baptist Church on 25th Street near Griffith Avenue, is a mix of the aesthetic and the practical.

All participants study the arts in the year-round component of the program, but there is added incentive for older participants during the summer: jobs.

"The practical aspect of our work program is never far from sight," Tommy Roberts said. "We are preparing them to hold jobs."

Through the city's Summer Youth Employment Training Program, 26 program members, ages 14 to 21, were paid last summer for participating. For two months, five days a week, five hours a day, they earned minimum wage to script, direct and film documentaries about the Constitution and current social issues.

But justifying paying youths to make films has been sticky business, Evelyn Roberts said, adding that workers in the city agency that funds the summer employment program have questioned such an expenditure.

"When we talk about work for kids in South-Central, the city expects to hear the words sweeping and maintenance, " she said.

Additional funds for the program come from private donations and grants from the city and federal government.

Evelyn Roberts believes that the very mix of arts and practicality that makes the program unique keeps it from getting more funding.

"We are between a rock and a hard place," she said. "We don't get the social service groups' grants because they say we have too much arts emphasis. Arts groups say we do too much community work. . . .

"They haven't been able to pigeonhole us, and it's been our financial downfall. But it is impossible to do what we do without getting into the area of social service."

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