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ECHO PARK : Door-to-Door Effort to Prevent Gangs

March 20, 1994|IRIS YOKOI

Don't be alarmed if three smiling strangers bearing note pads come knocking on your door. Chances are, they are Karina Gutierrez, Maria Vera and Dece Leonares, a team of "family outreach workers" who recently began canvassing Echo Park, Elysian Valley and Silver Lake to talk to parents and youths as part of the Hope in Youth gang-prevention program.

Billed as the largest anti-gang program in the country because of the nearly $8 million in city, county, state and private money backing it, Hope in Youth was created in 1992 by a coalition of churches.

So far, about 70 community workers have been hired at $30,000 a year to work in teams of three all over the county, including South-Central, East Los Angeles, Westlake and the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys. Program backers hope to hire 75 to 80 more workers in coming months.

Program officials said the workers talk to parents and youths to determine their concerns and then connect them with other residents to come up with community solutions to violence and gangs.

"We're looking for people with talent, a track record of accomplishment and people who know their communities," Rosalinda Lugo, Hope in Youth's associate director, said of the workers.

This year, organizers said, outreach teams have talked to more than 9,000 parents and youths.

There have been criticisms and questions about the program's reliance on community workers who lack expertise in gang and social issues. But that may actually be the program's strength, others say, since it will be up to the community at large, not the workers, to find solutions. Officials say the workers will serve as organizers, not social workers.

"The workers are out there listening and trying to find out not only the problems, but what resources there are," said Episcopal Bishop Frederick Borsch.

Added Father David O'Connell of St. Frances X Cabrini Catholic Church in South-Central: "It's definitely a different, new way of doing things."

The workers underwent an initial 24 hours of communications training, including how to meet and talk to residents, Lugo said. And, she said, after their first 90 days of listening and assessing community needs, the workers will receive additional training in community organizing to enable them to assist residents in setting up parenting classes, youth programs and other ways of helping themselves. Training is provided by representatives of Industrial Areas Foundation, a community outreach network that is a member of the coalition backing Hope in Youth.

Like most of their colleagues, Gutierrez, Vera and Leonares are average residents--parents, students and youth group leaders--who applied for the full-time, community outreach jobs through their churches.

Gutierrez will focus on meeting youth, Vera will target parents and Leonares will meet with school officials. Gutierrez and Vera speak Spanish as well as English, while Leonares can speak Tagalog. The three began working about a month ago and have been visiting schools and churches, attending community organization meetings and going door to door.

Everywhere they go, they jot down notes and names of residents, public officials and programs in the area--valuable future contacts.

Said Vera: "This is the first step: communication."

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