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A Sea Change in Perspective : Fishing Program Gets At-Risk Teen-Agers Away From the Mean Streets

August 19, 1993|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — The boat headed to sea with the children of the streets, whose worries about gangs and violence fell away as quickly as the city's skyline. Soon there would be fish to catch, dreams to dream.

Seventeen youngsters equipped with rods and reels were aboard the 50-foot boat that left the downtown marina for a popular fishing spot off Huntington Beach on a recent Saturday morning. They included Cambodians, clustered on the bow, and Latinos, standing on the stern.

"You get 'em out in the water, and you get 'em hooked," said Gabriel LeGay, the boat's Hawaiian-shirted captain.

The trip was part of a program developed by Ocean Challenge of Southern California, a nonprofit group that shows gang members and those who might be tempted to join gangs that opportunities exist beyond their neighborhoods.

The youngsters--more than 325 in three years--study ocean habitat, learn to fish and operate boats. They are taken camping on Catalina Island. They are told they could be tugboat captains, cruise-line workers, even marine biologists.

Clouds dispersed, and the boat eased next to a bait barge, staffed by a bearded man and an old dog. Martin Hinostroza15, gazed toward the barely discernible shore and said, "There's a peace out in the ocean. You don't have to worry about nothing."

Back in his neighborhood, around 10th Street and Magnolia Avenue, there is much to worry about. "Shootings, stabbings, killings," he said.

Since becoming part of the program, Martin has made 17 boat trips--and has dropped out of a gang.

Before Ocean Challenge was formed, LeGay, a sales manager for a wholesale fish distributor, and Mike Dover, who owns a flower cart on the Redondo Beach Pier, had taken youngsters from churches on occasional boat trips. Then about three years ago, the two men, along with a friend, Steve Howe, a buyer for a marine hardware company, and Thomas White, the coordinator of Long Beach Gang Prevention, worked out a program.

The group, which works with gang-prevention counselors who choose the program participants, now has 10 volunteers who take out youths from Long Beach, Norwalk, Redondo Beach and South Gate. When Long Beach youngsters are involved, the city pays for fuel and bait. Otherwise, Ocean Challenge depends on donations.

The toughest gang members learn quickly that the sea teaches humility.

"The ocean is a great equalizer," said Howe, Ocean Challenge's board chairman. A man of 35 in an Einstein T-shirt, he recalled a trip in six-foot waves: "A kid was being tough, and 15 minutes later he was hanging over the boat. You have no choice but to be humble if you're hanging over a boat throwing up. It changes your perspective."

Prone to seasickness himself, Howe is amazed that each Saturday he goes out on the boat--and amazed he became involved with inner-city youths.

"I'm from a town of 285 people, so gangbanging is pretty foreign to me," he said. "When I was a kid, all summer long I'd be at the swimming hole. I was not thinking, like these kids do, about how to survive.

"It devastates me," he continued, "when I take some of these kids home and see what kind of situation they're in. You see how much they want to have a better life. If you just open that one door, they'll run through it."

Amid a cluster of other boats, Ocean Challenge I dropped anchor in the fish-fertile water off Huntington Beach. The boys baited hooks with sardines and dropped their lines.

On his first cast, Sokhom Ren, 14, caught a 20-inch sand bass, its white belly gleaming in the sun. "My mom'll cook it," he said.

Alone on the starboard side, Martin Hinostroza fished and looked toward Catalina, where he has gone camping.

"A lot of these kids didn't even know Catalina existed," said LeGay, who had come down from the helm to help out at the bait tank.

The same racially mixed group normally goes out on these trips seven to 10 weeks in a row. This was the first time these youngsters were together. But before long, the Cambodians and Latinos stood side-by-side along the rails. They talked shyly and helped one another fish, which didn't surprise Howe.

"When they have to work together over a period of time," he said, "they develop friendships and break down the concepts they have of one another."

LeGay grilled hot dogs for lunch, but the young anglers were too entranced by fishing to eat. The cry of "I need the net!" was heard again and again. Often, the fish were too short and had to be thrown back. But many, to the boys' delight, were keepers.

No one needed the net more than 15-year-old Francisco Lopez, who caught fish after fish. Buoyed by confidence, when he got a bite he would say, "That one has my name on it."

Francisco is not in a gang, but his older brother, Daniel, once was.

"Now my brother takes me fishing and to church," Francisco said. "Now I don't have to worry about him at night."

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