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Community News: Mid-City

WESTLAKE : Youths' Labor Gets Them Soccer Time

October 23, 1994|LESLIE BERESTEIN

A blue van towing a trailer filled with painting supplies pulls up next to a graffiti-covered fence. Before the van even comes to a full stop, the doors swing open and out rush a swarm of teen-age boys, sporting green T-shirts and determined expressions.

Commando-like, they run to the trailer, grab buckets of paint and rollers and converge on the fence. Within minutes--before a crowd of rough-looking young men down the street notice--the graffiti is gone and the boys are back in the van, off to their next painting mission.

"As you can see, we've got to move quickly. We have to run in and out and move on to the next place," said Bernard Leon, 15, looking cautiously over his shoulder as he ran a paint roller over a vandalized wooden fence, making sure a group of loiterers down the street wasn't coming any closer.

Numbering 60 in all, the green-shirted youth are an adventurous lot, but they weren't always anti-graffiti urban guerrillas. Until recently, they were very unglamorously pulling weeds and tending to vegetable patches alongside younger boys in the St. Vincent Medical Center Community Garden, using their labor to earn free participation in four soccer teams sponsored by the hospital.

Since last spring, local boys age 8 to 18 have been participating in a program sponsored by the hospital in which they exchange two hours after school in the garden for two hours of soccer play afterward, originally at Griffith Park's John Ferraro Field and more recently at the new Ketchum Downtown YMCA field in Westlake.

The work-for-play arrangement provides the kids with uniforms, equipment, refreshments and transportation plus the T-shirts.

By August, the idea had become so popular that more than 100 kids were gardening, said Victor Hercules, who directs the program as community liaison for the hospital.

But some of the older boys, who range in age from 13 to 18 and whose two hospital-sponsored teams recently joined the American Youth Soccer Organization, began getting a little antsy among the cabbage and carrot patches.

"The big guys told me, 'We'd really like to continue playing soccer, but can't we do something different?' " Hercules said. "I knew they were getting bored."

Hercules suggested graffiti removal, but warned them it might be risky business. But the boys--as well as their parents--embraced the idea.

"The parents all let their kids come," said Hercules, who made sure they approved by having them sign release forms. "They're all aware of what we're doing. Some of them even participate and serve as lookouts for trouble."

After the hospital purchased a $4,000 graffiti-removal spray machine, the teens were ready to go, and the garden was left to the younger kids.

Four times a week, Hercules picks up a group of 15 teen-agers at the garden in the hospital's van, with a chaperoning parent or two usually following. From there, they drive from spot to spot, wiping out graffiti.

"We just drive around and clean up the graffiti," Hercules said, simultaneously keeping an eye on his boys and on a few young toughs hanging out nearby. "We don't stay around for too long. You can see the kind of element we have to deal with, and I don't like exposing the kids to that."

Despite occasional worries, Juan Carlos Chopin, 16, enjoys painting out graffiti much more than gardening, not only because he feels it is easier, but because he feels he's performing a valuable service.

"I'm making the city look better," he said as he painted a retaining wall. "Sometimes I worry about gangbangers, but when I do, I just start praying."

Propped up against her brown station wagon with arms folded over her chest, Ramona Alonso surveyed the neighborhood for signs of trouble as her two sons and several others painted nearby.

"I'm not terribly worried," she said. "These people don't really mess with you unless you mess with them. Besides, they're probably thinking, 'As soon as they leave, we'll just paint more graffiti.' "

Because this tends to happen in most places where residents paint over graffiti, there is always plenty of work. Hercules brings release forms for painting, which property owners are required to sign, to his Beverly Alvarado Neighborhood Watch meetings in order to set up jobs in advance. If the group comes upon a tagged property while on their rounds, they seek out the owner and get approval before they start painting.

In order to ensure the boys' safety, Hercules has informed the LAPD's Rampart Division of their activities so police can cruise the areas the group plans to paint.

"So long as the community is involved, and we're all together, it feels fairly safe," he said.

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