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Lack of Funds May Force After-School 'Oasis' to Close : Recreation: Bills are piling up at the nonprofit All-American Youth Center, which since January has been a haven for teen-agers.

July 04, 1993|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Otto Jackson is tired. His tall, normally erect frame sits slumped behind his desk at the end of another long day, a day that, like most others in recent months, painted a bleak future for his All-American Youth Center.

There are too many bills to pay and not enough money to pay them, said the 57-year-old Jackson, his voice soft but edged with desperation. The rally and fund-raiser he had worked hard to coordinate last weekend didn't come off because of 11th-hour city fee requirements he couldn't pay in time. A former middleweight boxer, Jackson recently had an operation to help his failing vision.

But as soon as he started talking about the young people who frequent his center, Jackson's cares fell away.

He spoke warmly about all the teen-agers he said he has lured from the streets after school hours. He has given them karate, weight training and aerobics classes, helped them with their homework, taken them on trips to Magic Mountain--anything to steer them clear of trouble.

"You know," he said with a mixture of pride and frustration, "everybody talks about how saving the youth is a priority, how we need to be getting involved with them. I'm doing exactly that."

For six months, Jackson's center at Pico Boulevard and Ridgely Drive has allowed young people who are left largely unsupervised after school to use their time productively and to express whatever is on their minds. Teen-agers say Jackson's two-hour Friday rap sessions are as essential to their well-being as the sports and tutorial programs, if not more so.

"We sometimes feel powerless as kids," 14-year-old Tennille Collins said on a recent Friday. "Adults don't really listen to our social concerns. We need more youth centers like this one so we can have somewhere to go."

Oscar Cabrera, a 19-year-old UCLA student who began frequenting the center as a high schooler and still does, said Jackson's efforts counter the enormous political indifference young people see all around them in the form of deteriorating inner-city environments. "There's a lot of pent-up frustration in our communities," he said. "Nobody listens. Elected officials keep hiding behind desks. There's only so much of this apathy we can take."

Cabrera repeats what many others, some as young as 4, say about Jackson: He cares.

During center hours, when he is scheduled to do administrative and paperwork, his office bustles with young people who need to be outfitted for a karate uniform, want to discuss problems or are simply there to hang out with "O.J." Despite a grandfatherly gruffness toward his charges and endless admonishments like "Y'all get on out of here," Jackson never turns them away. He listens intently to their admissions of troubled home life or slipping grades and chooses words of advice carefully, without condescension.

"Things are a lot better when people are around to talk to," said Joel McDonald, a personable 16-year-old who discovered the center in March. "I used to hang out, play videos. Here I can do my work and meet new people." He said he has even gotten the entrepreneurial spirit by helping other teen-agers hawk hot dogs and sodas each week from a small cart in front of the building to raise money for the center.

"It's an incredible place, a community oasis," said Denise Bolds, who regularly picks up her two daughters and nephew from the center. "What Otto's doing for the youngsters, especially the guys, is great. The nurturing is so important. As a community, we have to deal with these kids on one level or another."

Bolds volunteers to do whatever needs to be done at the center, from coordinating programs to moving furniture. "It's heart-wrenching that it's in danger of closing," she said. "I hate to even say that."

For all the good deeds it may do, the center has been operating on little more than a wing and a prayer since it opened in January.

Jackson, who makes a living managing musical acts and doing various home repairs, has never advertised his nonprofit foundation and needs help to pay the rent and utilities. Although owner Jay Farbstein initially gave Jackson a break on the lease by charging him $800 a month, Jackson now must pay $2,000. Since class fees total only $500 during a good month, Jackson routinely has barbecues and other fund-raisers to scrape up the balance.

Jackson, a father of five, also supports his youngest child, who is 10. He lost two sons in the past several years, one in a car accident and the other to AIDS. Though it has been a hellish experience, Jackson says he tries not to look back.

Parents pay what they can--which often isn't much--for services, and instructors work for little or nothing. Grants are few and far between; the last one, for $5,000 from the Amateur Athletic Foundation, came and went in April. Councilman Nate Holden's office pitches in with bus transportation when Jackson takes his charges on occasional trips to amusement parks or museums, but gives little financial support.

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