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COVER STORY : A Resolve Born From the Ashes

October 25, 1992|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Thursday, it will be six months since the city erupted after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the Rodney G. King beating trial. For many, the rage of the riots gave way to determination, whether that meant fighting the system, finding jobs for youths or focusing on urgent community needs.

Youth Jobs Program--Making It Work

Reginald and Renea Morris consider shutting down their Youth Jobs Awareness Project almost daily--just cutting the phone line and locking the door. But the thought that the fledging organization is a link to jobs for several hundred African-American young people holds them back.

"If there was some other organization to pass this thing on to, it would be great," said Reginald, 25, who started the program with his wife out of their South-Central home. "Sometimes I can't believe I got into this whole thing."

During the riots, Reginald saved two motorists from beatings by mobs at Florence and Normandie avenues. The incident sparked a nerve in the young couple, who live just blocks from the intersection. They wanted to do something more for the community, something significant for younger people.

"There's such a real need out there for young people who want to work and just can't find jobs. They're part of a large job pool that's just being ignored," said Renea, 28.

Reginald's heroism and his new organization drew the news media spotlight. Companies started phoning with donations--office equipment, computers and job offers for young people.

The county provided temporary free office space, and Reginald also got an indefinite paid leave of absence in June from his job with the county Department of Community and Senior Citizen Services to work on the project.

In its first six weeks, the organization had a job fair with Pepsico Inc., which offered 300 jobs in its various subsidies. Sixteen-year-old Dana Chambers came away with a summer job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, which led to an after-school position.

"The youth in the community are struggling, they want to do something with themselves. They want to work," said Reginald. "But their self-esteem is low and their communication skills are bad, so we try and build that up and make them marketable."

As Aphrika Hall figures, had it not been for the jobs project she would still be looking for work instead of answering phones at Channel One, a branch of Whittle Communications. "Job agencies benefit the companies, but this is finally something that benefits (African-Americans)," said Hall, a 23-year-old single parent.

So far, the Youth Jobs Awareness Project has placed more than 500 teen-agers and young adults--mostly African-Americans--in jobs throughout Los Angeles County, according to the Morrises.

Getting the organization on sure footing has meant a roller-coaster ride for the Morrises--one day everything is fine and the next there's a crisis. The program now has a permanent home at the All People's Lockhaven Christian Lighthouse Church in Inglewood. The project has a $200,000 yearly budget and Morris has raised about $40,000 in donations since he started in May.

Morris is continuing to work with Rebuild L.A. and solicit other corporations, including Arco and Rockwell International, for donations. However, getting corporations to commit money to his program has been a struggle, and Rebuild L.A.'s efforts have been slow, he said.

Richard McNish, a project manager at Rebuild L.A. who has been working with the Morrises, said the problem is getting the money out of the companies. "We're running into block walls," McNish said. "It's too bad that he's not getting the hit that he needs right now with the companies because he's doing some fine work and people are prospering."

The county recently told Reginald Morris to return to work by Nov. 1 or lose his job, a predicament that may force him to choose between providing for his family or his community.

"I've got to make a decision to either leave the county, or abandon the project and let it die, and I don't want to let this die," he said.

"We cannot see ourselves just not doing anything for the community," added Renea. "We're just going to stick it out and make it work because there are people who need what we're doing."

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