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Business Lure : Training Program at South-Central Restaurant Helps Dish Up Job Skills to Teens

July 31, 1994|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the outside, the Rainbow Inn Fish Market looks like nothing more than a homey South-Central take-out joint that serves up everything from half-pound burgers to banana pudding to fried catfish platters.

But something special is taking place inside the modest Main Street eatery--and it isn't on the menu.

Ten youths have completed or are in the midst of a four-month training program to acquire fundamental job and business skills. The program, funded by a $20,000 California Community Foundation grant, was established last fall by the Abundance of Christ Church in South-Central and the Kehillath Israel Synagogue in Pacific Palisades.

"We opened the restaurant because we wanted to give something back to the community," said Pastor Robbie Horton of Abundance of Christ Church, which is across the street from the restaurant. "We only employ people from the community and give them opportunities they might otherwise not have."

On a recent afternoon, four young women in their teens and early 20s stood around the tiny eatery, slicing vegetables, weighing fish and waiting on customers eager to sample the restaurant's red beans and rice and other Southern fare. The smell of grilled hamburgers and fried fish filled the kitchen as the young women wearing white T-shirts and jeans went about their tasks.

"Eeeeew," 15-year-old Brisa Becerra said as she tried unsuccessfully to chop off the head of a catfish.

"No, no. This is how you do it," manager Anita Harrison said as she grabbed a knife and sliced off the fish's head with one swoop.

"They're learning how to prepare food, but they're also learning how to operate office equipment and do bookkeeping," said Harrison, who is responsible for training the youths and running the business. "We're trying to teach them how to run a business so that they can get other jobs or maybe open their own business."

The job-training program grew out of a partnership between the church and synagogue called Two Cultures/One Heart. The church's gospel choir first visited the synagogue in early 1992, as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. After the riots, synagogue leaders contacted the church and offered their assistance.

"We took care of 2,000 families by delivering them food, clothes and furniture," Horton said. "After that, we decided to create a long-range plan. We informed them that the church was going to open a restaurant, and they have been a tremendous support to us since then."

A synagogue member, who works in the personnel department at Target, helped a program graduate get a job at one of the department store chain's nearby locations. Other members have offered employment counseling and have donated supplies and materials. Church and synagogue members also have sponsored joint religious services, recreational activities and other programs for South-Central residents.

"It's gotten to be a very comfortable relationship," said Sandi Merwitzer, a member of the synagogue who stops by the restaurant on a weekly basis. "We try to provide them with whatever they need."

Recently, Merwitzer showed up at the fish market with a stack of coupons she had printed for the restaurant and a pile of practice Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

"I thought this would help some of the kids prepare for college," she said.

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Of the four participants who have already completed the program, two went to college or training schools, one is enrolled in a different job-training program and one works at Target.

Becerra, a Jordan High School student who has worked at the restaurant for the past two months, learned of the program by accident.

"I asked the pastor if he could open the church's gate so I could play basketball, and he asked me if I could work," she said. "I asked my dad, and he said it would be OK. So far, it's been going pretty good."

Participants receive $4.25 an hour and work 15 hours a week. The program is funded by California Community Foundation's Community Bridges program, a $1-million effort to support inter-ethnic collaborations. Sixteen community-based organizations were awarded grants late last year.

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Although the job-training program at the Rainbow Inn Fish Market has gone smoothly, its future remains in doubt because the grant money will expire this fall. The restaurant also is struggling financially.

"Business has been slow," Horton said, "but we're going to try really hard to keep the program going."

Said Harrison: "The majority of the kids have never worked before and don't have skills that could get them jobs. I didn't know how much of a need there was for a program like this until we got started. The kids find out that they can be somebody."

The Rainbow Inn Fish Market, 9106 S. Main St., 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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