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Personal Best

A Close-Up Look At People Who Matter : Helping Hand for Troubled Teen-Agers

September 09, 1993|JAMES ZOLTAK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Rick Tamura talks to kids about staying out of trouble or turning their lives around once they've started down the road to ruin, he isn't coming out of left field.

Tamura, 26, barely survived his own troubled youth. After running away from his adoptive family in Marin County at age 14, he lived on the streets and in youth shelters in the Tenderloin and Castro districts of San Francisco.

He says he managed to avoid prostitution, but wasn't as lucky when it came to drugs, especially heroin. He credits a counselor at the Larkin Street shelter in San Francisco with saving him from life on the streets and getting him through high school.

"He literally followed me around town to see what I was up to," Tamura recalled.

After "riding freight trains like a hobo," Tamura settled in Southern California, where he attended a Hollywood school for sound engineers.

He now owns a small production studio and recently received a National Endowment of the Arts grant to travel to Amsterdam and continue his work in music. He produces electronic synth-funk and techno-pop.

But Tamura won't be traveling to Amsterdam any time soon.

Instead, he has decided to stay put with his year-old job as coordinator of the Teen Outreach Program--a project that matches teen-agers with volunteer work for school credit.

Established in 1978 in St. Louis by the Assn. of Junior Leagues International, Teen Outreach was introduced to Southern California in February as a pilot project in 10 San Fernando Valley continuation and options schools.

The program is a joint effort of the Assn. of Junior Leagues and the Los Angeles Unified School District, with the Volunteer Center of San Fernando Valley, where Tamura is a staffer, matching students with volunteer opportunities.

"I'm expecting 450 to 500 (students) this year," Tamura said. Last year, about 250 students participated in Teen Outreach.

Tamura recruits students by visiting and making presentations at schools.

Teen Outreach aims to promote positive development among youngsters considered at risk of getting pregnant, involved with gangs and drugs or dropping out of school.

Tamura finds that his own experience is helpful in developing a rapport with youngsters.

"A lot of the kids I'm working with could end up in a similar situation to mine," he said. "I don't relate a lot to gang involvement. For me, it was more or less survival, but I think my experience gives me a level of understanding of a lot of the challenges the kids face . . . some of them more daunting than the ones I've seen."

"When they find out about my background, they look at me as someone who managed to turn his life around and get back on track."

He rattles off a few success stories that have come after just a few months of Teen Outreach.

One is that of 18-year-old Lupe Cerda, an ex-gang member from North Hollywood.

"When she came into the program, she had three credits toward graduation," Tamura said.

After volunteering at Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Lowman Special Education Center, a North Hollywood school for physically challenged children, her life took a dramatic turn.

"She's just sort of activated now," Tamura said. "She's just kind of blossomed."

Such 180-degree turns have given Tamura a passion for what he does and a deeper respect for the counselors who helped him through adolescence.

"I think that's why I have such a good time with it," he said. "It's not that I'm on some sort of mission or anything, but this is the first job I've ever had where I felt I could come home at the end of the day and feel I've helped someone out.

"It's kind of like pay back to a lot of people who spent a lot of time working on me. It's just a really good place to be."

Personal Best profiles ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818-772-3338).

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