The lifeguards at the Will Rogers Park pool in Watts specialize in saving kids--in more ways than you might think.
They choose young people for summer jobs that provide a shelter from gang violence. They are role models to the neighborhood's troubled teens-agers, well-muscled father figures who also teach a killer backstroke.
Sometimes they save lives in the more conventional way: On Thursday, lifeguard Raymond Bouldin pulled a 16-year-old boy from the pool's deep end, bringing him back to consciousness with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
And yet Bouldin and the other lifeguards at Will Rogers might soon might be out of a job. Will Rogers is one of 24 Los Angeles County pools from Cerritos to the Antelope Valley slated for closure as the Board of Supervisors copes with a massive budget deficit.
When next summer rolls around, the gates at Will Rogers might be locked forever, leaving hundreds of young people without a place to cool off on hot summer days.
"If the pool closes, these kids are going to end up on the street," says pool manager Robert Louis. "There's going to be a lot of havoc in the community."
For the bureaucrats at the county Department of Parks and Recreation, it's a matter of eliminating $1.4 million from the budget. But for Louis and other lifeguards, it's the end of a community institution.
Louis got his first job at Will Rogers back in 1966, a year after the Watts riots. The swimming pool is just a few blocks from "Charcoal Alley," the flash point of the riots. Arten Thompson, 40, learned to swim there in the late 1960s and is now a senior lifeguard.
"If they're going to close this pool, they're going to have to fill it up with sand, because people are going to try to fill it up with water," Thompson said. "People need a place to cool off. If you take that away, then what?"
Officials at the Department of Parks and Recreation have drafted plans to close 23 parks, in addition to pools. Some parks, however, are expected to be saved when other jurisdictions, such as the city of Los Angeles, take them over.
"Every department is competing for the same dollars," said Tony Yakimowich, budget chief for the parks department. "The fact is that there just is not enough money to sustain (pools)."
Although Will Rogers will remain open until September, it will not reopen next June if the Board of Supervisors approves the budget-cutting plan. Supervisors are holding hearings on the proposals this month and are scheduled to approve the budget by August.
Just the thought of closing Will Rogers pool seemed preposterous to some of the teen-agers standing poolside on a recent afternoon.
"They can't close this pool, they have to leave it open," said Andrew Prince, 16, water dripping from his swimming trunks. "This is where the girls are at."
Where would 15-year-old Dawone Thomas be if the pool closed? "I'd be at home," Dawone said, "sitting in my living room, wishing this pool was open."
With that, Dawone jumped into the shimmering pool, filled with more than 300 people, most of them children. Gangly boys and girls bounced off the diving board, splaying their arms and legs and falling loudly into the water.
Necole Atlas, 19, is one of more than a dozen teen-agers employed at the pool. "No, they can't do that," she said of the impending closure. "That's the wrong thing to do. If I didn't work here, I probably wouldn't have a job."
The budget crisis has already hit hard at Will Rogers. In an effort to raise cash, department bureaucrats earlier this year instituted a plan to charge $20 for swimming lessons that were free. In Watts, where families struggle to make ends meet, the fee has been a disaster.
"We used to have 80 to 100 kids per day taking lessons," lifeguard Thompson said. "Now we're lucky to get 15. . . . They're saying that kids from low-income families shouldn't learn to swim. They're just taking that away from them."
Without good swimming skills in Southern California's water-happy culture, Thompson said, youngsters are at risk of drowning. His point had been dramatically illustrated just a few hours earlier, when Bouldin pulled the drowning boy out of the water.
The boy had blacked out in deep water. Bouldin jumped quickly into the pool, administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the unconscious boy while still in the water. After a half-dozen bursts of air from the lifeguard, the boy began breathing again.
"It always feels good when you help somebody," Bouldin said. "But I'm not a hero or anything like that. I was just in the right place, doing my job."
If county budget cuts take their toll, it is a job Bouldin might not be doing much longer.