Anthony Ward dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. But if he doesn't get to follow in the footsteps of basketball's greats, the 12-year-old wants to be a writer.
"I want to give something back. I think I can do that with writing," said Anthony, a seventh-grader at Markham Middle School. "Sometimes people say I wouldn't make it, but I just ignore them and I say, 'I'll show you.' "
Anthony's ambition and desire have largely been fueled by the success stories he has heard from those who have spoken to him and other Watts youths in a Nickerson Gardens Community Center program.
Each month a different guest visits the community center on 112th Street to inspire Anthony or any of 80 or so other youths through Keepers of the Dream, a speakers program run through the Los Angeles Housing Authority's five community service centers.
"Everyone has a story," said Anthony Ephriam, the center's senior case manager. "Some people's stories may reflect the kids' lives and they may be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel through someone else's story. It's just another form of education."
Ephriam started Keepers of the Dream in 1990 to expose young people to opportunities and careers beyond entertainment and athletics. Opening young minds to a wide variety of opportunities is important, especially in Nickerson Gardens where most of the children's role models are athletes, rap artists--or the local gang member or drug dealer, Ephriam said.
Many of the 8- to 18-year-olds, all of whom live in Nickerson Gardens, are referred to the center by their schools or a child welfare agency; others walk in off the street to find something to do or someone to talk to. The center is often like a second home. The workers are like an extended family, providing guidance or a sympathetic ear.
And the Keepers of the Dream is a critical part of broadening the perspectives of the neighborhood youths, Ephriam said.
"These kids are like the kids next door only with less money," he said. "They have the same potential, the same desire to learn, same eagerness. They just need their egos stroked."
Speakers have included former Mayor Tom Bradley, staff members of the multiethnic advertising agency of Muse, Cadero & Chin, reporter Nancy Agosto of KMEX-TV Channel 34, Carl Jones and T.J. Walker, owners of the company that makes Cross Colours clothing, author George Littlechild and some professional athletes. Each has provided a different perspective, a different challenge to the youths and encouraged them to think of all of their options in life, Ephriam said.
The program has given Antonio Stevens, 16, greater direction in his pursuit to become an artist. It has taught Mark Straight, 13, how to set goals, respect other people and their cultures and to make the most of his education. And it's made Jermaine Jamison, 15, feel that he can be successful, despite some of the negativity around him.
"I believe deep down in my heart that I can be anything I want to be if I put my mind to it," Jermaine said. "I believed that before (the program), but all of those people coming to speak here show me that it's really true."
For each of these boys, who have been coming to the center for several years, the most challenging speaker has been author Ishmael Reed, in part because he taught them a bit of black history.
Reed's recent talk on writing, his life and being black in America was Anthony Ward's confirmation that writing would play a large role in his future.
"I really believe that I can do something," Anthony said. "Because like Mr. Ishmael Reed said, people told him that he couldn't make it, but I see that he did make it. And now I know I can do it too. Because people were telling me the same thing and if he made it, I can too."
Reed, 50, is known for his controversial views on the status of blacks in American society. He expounded to the children on everything from brief lessons on the contributions of African Americans to American history and culture, to twisting negative images of blacks and Latinos into badges of honor: "If they hate you and they despise you, you don't let that get you down. You rise above it."
Questions and experiences are what drive Keepers of the Dream, Colbert said.
"It gives (the kids) a chance to express themselves and show the interviewee that he is being listened to by a knowledgeable person," Colbert said. "Our kids are not looked at as being knowledgeable--which is not true. They just haven't been given the opportunity. Now they have it."