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Jobs Program Freshens Walls, Youths' Prospects

July 18, 1993|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Kider" was everywhere in El Monte, a tag scrawled in hunter green, royal blue or glossy black. Bold, stand-out colors and fat letters.

That's the way Gilbert Valenzuela, 17, wanted it. Made him feel big when he saw his tag all over town.

At first, it hurt to paint over it. But Valenzuela, a convicted tagger, got used to it. He even stopped tagging.

"It was, like, the more graffiti I throw up, the more graffiti I have to clean," said Valenzuela, who works for the El Monte Police Department.

The department's community relations unit helps find jobs for gang members, taggers and troubled youths. Some of the taggers hired by the Police Department say they spray-paint in other cities so they won't have to wipe out their own names.

Hiring is down this year because of the recession, said Officer Ken Weldon, supervisor of the community relations unit. About 50 companies, mostly fast-food places and manufacturing firms, usually participate in the Police Department's jobs program, but this year only 10 are hiring, he said.

Since 1975, police have found more than 1,000 jobs for young people, Weldon said. Police estimate that roughly 75% of the young people stick with their jobs.

The jobs program started in 1975, when gang activity peaked--there were seven gang-related slayings and an upswing in gang-related violence, including stabbings and forced recruitment of students at local high schools.

In response, the Police Department and the Boys Club of San Gabriel Valley organized the jobs program, called the El Monte Plan. Police officers helped gang members train for interviews, fill out job applications and get transportation to work. The idea was to keep gang members out of trouble and build their sense of self-worth. The only requirement was to show up, do the job and keep clean; police did not require young people to give up their gangs.

Police also had to talk business owners into taking a chance on troubled kids, pitching the program as a way to fight crime.

"If they feel better about themselves, they don't shoot people, they don't stab people, and they don't do all the stupid things you read about," Weldon said.

John Sliger, general manager of Rainbow Plastics, admitted that he was skeptical when police first approached him about the jobs program. But in the past 16 years, the El Monte-based company has hired more than 500 young people through the program.

"There's nothing for them to do but to do things on the street," Sliger said. "They think about beating up little old ladies for their purses rather than how to drive a forklift or dig a ditch. I haven't found one of them who felt good about what they were doing. They drifted into the life."

Sliger, a former Marine Corps sergeant, said he has had few problems with gang members, other than a few no-shows and occasional gang graffiti in the company bathroom. He hires them as a public service.

"Personally, it gives you a self-satisfaction, knowing you are working with people capable of making a turnaround, (people) headed in the wrong direction," Sliger said.

One of Sliger's employees, former gang member Eric Miranda, was hired through the jobs program eight years ago as a warehouse assistant. Miranda, 24, stuck with the job and saved enough money to buy a new four-bedroom house in Fontana.

On a recent morning, Miranda was driving a forklift in the company's warehouse.

"I got a job, a beautiful wife, a baby on the way--what more could you want, really?" he said, grinning.

He took the job at Weldon's urging. Sometimes, he'd show up late or not show up at all. Weldon would hunt him down and persuade him to stick with it, Miranda said, but never in front of his gang, the El Monte Hayes. In fact, Weldon once spotted him with the gang and pretended not to know him.

Miranda finally decided he wanted out of "gangbanging and slamming heroin."

"I was tired of getting in and out of trouble," he said. "My mom said, 'You're going to end up in jail or dead.' "

Persistence is the key, Weldon said.

"You never give up on them, until they give up on themselves. When that happens, they have to go elsewhere."

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