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SOUTH-CENTRAL : At-Risk Youths Learn Responsibility

August 01, 1993|SANDRA HERNANDEZ

While participants in a program for troubled youths were picnicking in a Little Tokyo courtyard, organizers noticed that two teen-agers had disappeared.

The youths were found hiding in the nearby car of an adult supervisor, laughing at their successful prank. But counselors from the Los Angeles Youth At Risk Foundation did not let the incident end there.

"We get them to acknowledge their mistakes and try and then take responsibility," said Mark Meyers, Youth At Risk's program coordinator. "So we had the kids acknowledge they hid in the car, then had them respond to why they hid without any excuses. Then we made them clean up the mess, and that often means simply apologizing and committing to not doing that again."

Such incidents are common in the yearlong program, which pairs 18 youths from James A. Foshay Middle School with adults from throughout the city. Counselors say dealing with such events is part of helping teen-agers who are in trouble at school and at home regain control of their lives.

"These are kids who feel like they are victims of circumstances, and they live in a situation where they have no control," Meyers said. "We try to make them realize they are the authors of their lives."

For some youths, the program is a way to cope with family problems, gangbanging and violence.

"I'm only 13, and I've seen a lot," said one. "After my cousin got shot last year, I wanted to retaliate, but I don't want to kill for no reason . . . but what would my homies think?"

For others, the program has meant developing skills they have found difficult to gain elsewhere. "I've learned to trust people," said another 13-year-old participant. "I'm going to stick with it 'cause I gave my word."

The students, who will remain in the program for a year, were carefully screened by school counselors and program organizers. Each youth was then paired with an adult who agreed to meet with his or her partner at least once a week and call at least twice a week.

Howard Lappin, principal at Foshay, said students involved in Youth At Risk are making steady progress at school.

"I'm a fan of the program, because the results have convinced me," said Lappin, adding that students taking part in the program improved their attendance almost immediately.

The program, sponsored by Los Angeles Youth At Risk, a nonprofit organization founded in 1983, is one of about 20 operating nationwide. The idea behind the program was first championed by the Breakthrough Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that trains local chapters to help teen-agers at risk change their lives.

"The kids we work with are bombarded with problems like drugs, abuse and gangs and growing up in an environment that has taken away the idea of what is possible," said Mark Charley, program director for the Breakthrough Foundation. "So the dreams they had when they were 4 or 5 of being a doctor or a pilot go away as they grow up without a sense of possibility. What we try to do is give them a new place to look at life from."

This year's program started in April with a five-day retreat to Big Bear, during which the youths and adults underwent an intensive training session.

Advocates of the program say they want to expand it next year, but are in need of money for the Big Bear retreat, which cost about $60,000. The program is funded through private and corporate donations.

While the success of the program can often be hard to measure, organizers say they know it is working because some participants have returned to work as counselors. Raul Belayo, a graduate of the 1987 course, is one of them.

"It helped me a lot, and I just want someone else to have the same chance and to show them there is another way to do things aside from the way we take care of business down here in the neighborhood," Belayo said. "You know it's tough in the program, but the funny thing is, you can't quit. That's something I got out of the program--your word is a powerful tool."

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