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Friends Outside : A year-old St. Vincent de Paul Society program helps Orange County gang members, juvenile criminals and other at-risk youths with counseling, referrals and a placement service to find jobs. So far, employers have been receptive.

March 06, 1994|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Assume you're trying to land a job during a time when the economic pendulum is barely beginning to swing up. Assume further that you have little or no experience at any job of any kind. And, by the way, you have a recent criminal record.

As far as much of the world of employment is concerned, you're persona non grata.

That is what sticks in the craw of many at-risk youths, who let the idea of an actual job linger in their minds for an instant before the memory of wary stares in public places demolishes it.

"They drive through a fast food restaurant (for a meal)," says Al Hanna, "and they say that people look at them only as gang bangers. They have a very low comfort level there, very low self-esteem. After all, if you can't walk into a place like that (to eat), how can you walk into the Disney offices for a job interview?"

Still, Javier Rivera has done just that. The 17-year-old from Garden Grove, who recently served time in Orange County Juvenile Hall for auto theft, made what he and his new group of friends consider to be a solid showing in a pair of interviews for a staff position at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

Javier is one of a handful of juvenile offenders who have gotten a leg up on a job with the help of a year-old program called Friends Outside, sponsored by the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Orange County. Designed as a counseling, referral and placement service for gang members, other at-risk youths and juvenile criminals who might otherwise never consider interviewing for a job, Friends Outside grew out of a more conventional style of jailhouse ministry.

More than a year ago, said Hanna, a program volunteer, the society had been conducting Bible studies and one-on-one counseling with youths in detention, "but to be more productive, we thought we ought to be able to make a bridge between their release and potential employment. We could talk a good fight, but we took it a step further to actually meet Mr. Employer."

And, so far, Mr. Employer appears to be receptive. At a job fair held last month by Friends Outside, 104 young people and several representatives of area companies--including Disney, Carl's Jr. and St. Joseph Hospital--got a closer look at each other and apparently liked what they saw. Five kids are working in regular jobs they found through the program, and almost another 20 are actively looking and interviewing.

Some of these kids are at greater risk of recidivism to juvenile hall than many of their peers, said juvenile hall director Tom Wright. In a recent study, more than 6,000 juvenile offenders were tracked through the justice system and, Wright said, 70% never returned to juvenile hall. Another 22% were back a second or third time; the remaining 8% returned more often--as many as 13 times. Many of the youths who go to the Friends Outside program, Wright said, are probably in that troubled 30%.

But some employers apparently don't see that status as an automatic stigma.

"(The employers) realize that these are people coming from a troubled background who have a desire to break out of that," Hanna said. "There are negatives in that many employers are not hiring anybody right now, and they may think, 'Why would I want to hire an at-risk kid when I could hire somebody white collar?' But they say they'll talk to the kids, and they're more willing after they talk. They see that it's a benefit to the entire community in that this kid, if he's hired, now becomes a role model."

Which is how Javier is beginning to see himself. Involved in the Friends Outside program for about 2 1/2 months, Javier says he now feels comfortable with the program staff and is making a strong effort to succeed.

"They're nice people here, and it does help in (juvenile hall) to think about doing better, but when you're outside, it's not so easy," he said. "When you get out, you can get back into doing the same things. I'm trying to stay out of trouble now: no hanging out with the homies."

Partly as a result of his positive attitude, Javier said he was treated cordially during his two interviews, "not like just this criminal."

Javier's open-arm reception was helped by a bit of tutoring beforehand. Interview candidates are briefed by the Friends Outside staff on what they can expect to hear and see in an interview and are coached on basic job interview techniques, even appearance. Because many of the young people don't own clothes appropriate for a job interview, arrangements are sometimes made with the St. Vincent de Paul clothing center in Orange.

It was requests for just that sort of help that spawned the Friends Outside jobs program, said Joan O'Brien, a volunteer. During the seven years she worked as a volunteer at juvenile hall, O'Brien said, the youths serving time would constantly ask her for help and advice about getting jobs.

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