On a brisk spring morning, 21 ninth-graders troop through the Veterans Administration medical center in Sepulveda in ragged formation. Their destination--the volunteer office, Building 22.
Inside, their energy reverberates through the corridors. The students, all from the Francisco Sepulveda Junior High School magnet program, cluster around a small table laden with racks of sign-up sheets. Energetic chatter and laughter spill through the building.
For the moment, confusion has the upper hand.
A lone woman, looking good-natured but harassed, tries to assert control: "If you don't know where your assignment is, then stand back."
"If you don't know your assignment," she calls out, louder this time, "then just wait against the wall." Her voice rises: "We'll get you sorted out in a minute."
And, gradually, the chaos gives way to order.
This particular program is one of six at the VA hospital that give students an opportunity to earn credit for community work or gain valuable experience.
Through the magnet program, students can work in the Geriatric Rehabilitation Involvement Program (GRIP) or the Clerical/Administrative Program (CAP).
Twelve students in the GRIP program, under the guidance of psychologist and coordinator Donna Benton, visit elderly patients--many of them severely dysfunctional--at the VA hospital's long-term nursing care unit. "It's real fun," said Debbie Feldner, 14, who is in her second year of GRIP volunteering.
Kenneth Hsu, 13, said he enjoys the experience so much that he wants to repeat it next year. "We walk around and see if anyone wants to talk to us. We usually let them talk and pick the topic," he said.
Forty-eight Sepulveda Junior High students have chosen to work in CAP. As clerical assistants, aides and gofers, they help hospital staff tackle the multitude of small but repetitive tasks that would otherwise eat up the time of skilled personnel. Usually they deliver books around the hospital, file and run errands.
Some of them frankly admit that they find the work boring sometimes.
Why do they do it?
"For community-service credit," said one teen-age girl without pausing for thought. Others nod in agreement. They hope the community-service credit on their transcripts will enhance their college applications.
For such credit, students in the magnet program do 20 hours of volunteer service over a 10-week period. They must also complete all their regular class work.
School program administrator David Walbert said: "It creates a feeling of self-worth that no other activity can equal. It helps the students to build a well-rounded character."
From the viewpoint of hospital officials, too, the program is advantageous. Ann Van Wie, who started the youth volunteer program five years ago, said that at first she had to persuade skeptical hospital administrators that the students would make good volunteers.
But the need for extra help was great: "We just could not get enough adults to meet the demand," she said. "Now," Van Wie reports, "the staff call us up and request student help."
And calls from program administrators at other schools wanting to participate are becoming more and more frequent, she said.
About 100 students participate each week. And Sepulveda Junior High is not the only one providing volunteers.
Several private schools--Crespi, Highland Hall, St. Genevieve and L.A. Baptist, all in the Valley--require 40 hours of community service for graduation and send student volunteers to the hospital.
Four or five times a year, students from Gledhill Street Elementary School in Sepulveda visit elderly patients and those in long-term care.
Six schools participate in a Mental Health Program that gives high school students a chance to work with patients suffering from mental disorders.
Marlton, a school for the deaf in South-Central Los Angeles, furnishes two students a week, who get experience learning to make themselves understood in a hearing world.
The VA hospital's maintenance crews have found willing hands among the student volunteers.
In the crew's recreation room on the hospital's sprawling grounds, one hearing-impaired student, Jonathan Lovo, 18, volunteers two days a week, four hours each day.
"It's wonderful experience. I think every student should have the chance to do something like this," said Janne Shirley, a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who coordinates Marlton's program.
Joseph Hall, 17, a junior at Valley Alternative and one of 12 volunteers from his school, has been working for more than six months with maintenance mechanic Sid Mendez. Two days a week for four hours at a time, Hall helps keep the groundskeeper's blowers, lawn mowers and scooters in good running order.
Mendez, mentor as well as mechanic, offers Hall praise and advice in equal measure.
"I'm really pleased. He's learning a lot," Mendez said. They have become a team.
"What I like about him, is"--Mendez grinned at Hall--"he's not afraid to get his hands dirty."