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Cover Story : A Sense of Hope : Long Beach has enlisted schools, the police, the Boys and Girls clubs, and the YMCA in an effort to reach out to at-risk kids in some of the city's toughest areas and give them . . .

August 04, 1994|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Javier Collado, 15, a good kid with hard-working parents, lives in one of Long Beach's poorest, most violent neighborhoods. Bodies are found in dumpsters, crack houses are as common as liquor stores and youthful rebellion can lead to a prison term or a pine box.

At one point, Javier seemed destined to become another crime statistic. He began staying out until midnight, failing at school and ignoring his parents' pleas to stay off the streets.

All that changed, though, when he joined a basketball team at the downtown YMCA and found a friend in Bob Cabeza, the YMCA director. Cabeza helped Javier reconcile with his parents and encouraged him to improve his grades and behavior. Today, Javier is a tutor for the younger neighborhood kids and hopes to go to college.

Javier and other teens who are in danger of going astray have spurred the city of Long Beach to join forces with agencies such as the YMCA to provide youth programs in some of the city's worst neighborhoods.

City workers are turning vacant lots into playgrounds and roaming neighborhoods in vans filled with sports equipment so kids can play in places without parks or fields.

They're organizing teen-agers to pick up trash and erase graffiti. They're offering art classes, midnight basketball games and workshops to help kids find jobs.

Officials have enlisted the schools, the police, the Boys and Girls clubs and foundations--tapping into existing programs, like the one at the YMCA, and creating new ones.

This comprehensive effort will serve as a model for other cities, said Ce Etta Crayton, associate professor in the department of leisure studies at Cal State Long Beach.

"Youthful crime will affect everyone as these kids become adults," she said. "What Long Beach is doing is realizing that kids need attention, so they're providing more programs for youth at risk."

In the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, mostly on the city's western section, bars cover the windows and doors on rows and rows of apartment buildings, graffiti mars walls and bus benches, and more than a quarter of the families live below the federal poverty level. On any given day, private and public child welfare workers battle the forces of poverty in these crowded, poor and violent neighborhoods.

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On Mondays and Tuesdays in MacArthur Park, at Anaheim Street and Walnut Avenue, the park's drill team practices maneuvers for its next competition under the guidance of a part-time counselor. At the downtown YMCA and at three schools within walking distance, youths spend a couple of hours a day with neighborhood children, tutoring, talking and playing games.

Behind a bail bondsman's shop at 3rd Street and Magnolia Avenue, a city worker arrives in a van with portable play equipment and transforms a raggedy plot of land into basketball courts filled with chattering children. At Martin Luther King Jr. Park, city recreation leader Connie Odon can be found daily counseling girls about everything from sex to child abuse.

The city began mobilizing its efforts four years ago, at a time when the crime rate was soaring and the recession began depleting city coffers. The recreation department alone faces a 9.1% reduction this year in funds that pay for park programs and youth services. But the city has vowed to preserve services for the children who need it most, even if the cuts will mean fewer staff members, weedy parks with brown grass and delays in repairing aging buildings.

"We put youth first. If any investment is going to be made, it's going to made in young people," said Kelton Reese, superintendent for the community parks program. "We have a problem with youth. They are the future and we have to deal with the problem in a positive way."

Every day, Tyrone Malone, 15, arrives at the downtown YMCA in the morning and collects his charges, 10 elementary school students who live nearby in a neighborhood where nearly half of the residents are supported by welfare. From hundreds of applicants, the YMCA selected Tyrone to be one of 40 high school and college leaders in the Youth Club Collaborative Program for At-Risk Kids, what YMCA director Cabeza calls "an inner-city Peace Corps." Tyrone acts as counselor, mentor, tutor and role model for the black, Latino and Asian children assigned to him during summer day camp.

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Tyrone relates to the children, Cabeza said, because he is growing up in similar circumstances. Before settling in Long Beach, Tyrone moved seven or eight times. He walks 30 minutes from his house to the Y because he cannot afford bus fare. Three of his six brothers and sisters live with him and his mother, who is unemployed. He rarely sees his father, who lives in Riverside County, he said.

Tyrone said his younger brother, now 13, hit a pregnant teacher and has been in juvenile hall and a group home for the last two years.

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