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Inner City Art Center an Outlet for Creative Talents of Needy Youngsters

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Nine-year-old Juan Torres enjoys drawing pictures about the good times in his life. There was the drawing of the trip to Long Beach with his older brother and the sketch of the clown on television that made him laugh.

But what Juan enjoys most is drawing pictures of his modest home in Mexico, where he could play in a spacious back yard, and his parents had more time to spend with him.

The pictures help keep alive the fading memories of an easier time in Juan's life, said his mother, Maria. After immigrating to the United States four years ago, it's not so easy anymore. He plays in the dark hallways of a downtown hotel room he shares with his parents, three brothers and six other relatives. And he spends little time with his mother and father, who work long hours to make ends meet.

Juan is among 458 students from 9th Street School who take part in the Inner City Arts for Inner City Kids program. Begun last September, the program gives the school's students an opportunity to express their creativity through art, said Principal Betty Peifer.

The 9th Street Elementary School opened six years ago in portable buildings assembled as emergency classrooms for the growing number of children living in the crowded hotel rooms, run-down apartments and homeless shelters in the Los Angeles downtown area.

"We really don't have the facilities other schools have," Peifer said. "This wonderful program gives us more of an opportunity to compete on the same level of other schools." The program is operated in a 4,800-square-foot loft two blocks from the school.

Veronica Perez, a first-grader, likes the center's shiny hardwood floor and high ceiling. "It's pretty," said Veronica, while carefully painting her clay pot. "It looks like my church."

Artist Bob Bates, director of the center, said many students who come to him never had the opportunity to experiment with the arts. "Here they can see a larger part of life. We can stimulate their creativity," Bates said. "One of the things we want to do is to show them they can be artists. That they have talent."

The center is the creation of Bates and businessman Irwin Jaeger. Both say they were interested in sparking an interest in the arts among inner-city children. So last May, they went searching for a usable space within walking distance of the school.

Jaeger, who spent $137,000 to operate the center its first year, said he will continue to put money into the program until other means of funding can be found.

"The center is a good thing. Real good," said Jaeger, a Beverly Hills resident who develops commercial property in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. "We've given the kids the chance to do something they might have never done. In return, they have given me the opportunity to make a difference."

With art being a natural vehicle for the expression of hidden feelings, Bates said he has sometimes become alarmed with some of the children's drawings.

"I've had kids draw pictures of dead people, prostitutes, drug dealers, people jumping out of buildings," Bates said. "These kids need help. Art helps them to work out a lot of dark stuff in their lives."

The arts center, which Peifer says is the the first of its kind in the county, works with the school counselor and psychologist to identify and counsel troubled children. It also works in conjunction with teachers.

Peifer said teachers of English as a second language use the art their students create at the center for discussion in the classroom.

"They can practice their English skills," said Stefani Rosenberg, a first- and second-grade bilingual teacher. "The traditional ways of teaching are boring. When we go back to the classroom, we talk in English about the fun we've had at the center."

Fifth- and sixth-graders use the center to create murals for their social studies classes, Peifer said. "It would be almost impossible not to include the center in the curriculum," Peifer said. "The art motivates the children and helps them to do well in their schoolwork."

In the future, Bates hopes to provide music and dance performances and lessons at the center. He also aspires to serve the children of other downtown area schools. The center already conducts an art program for children from Para los Ninos, an inner-city social services agency.

"We are here for children, for their benefit," Bates said. "Who knows how far we can go? Maybe we'll even inspire other people to begin centers like this."

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