Hours after three Hope in Youth anti-gang centers in the San Fernando Valley were closed and several counselors laid off, a group of teen-agers met to figure out what they would do next and whether they had learned enough to stay out of trouble.
"I see this as another challenge," said Giovanna Chan, a 15-year-old San Fernando High School student and former gang member whose best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting when she was in elementary school. "They're shutting us off, and we've got to decide what to do."
As the youths talked Thursday, there was confusion and anger, tears and pride, but there was precious little resignation about the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decision this week to stop funding the group.
That decision led to the closure of 22 county-financed Hope in Youth centers, including two in San Fernando and one in Canoga Park. Four other sites in the Valley, two in Sun Valley and one each in Pacoima and Reseda, remain open.
The decision puts into doubt the organization's five-year goal of placing nearly 500 social workers into neighborhoods, at which point the group would disband. The new guides would steer teen-agers away from trouble without additional government assistance.
It was the future of the embattled organization, and by extension their own futures, that was on the minds of the Hope in Youth members as they sat around a table in the Reseda center.
"The community is always saying, 'These kids are always killing each other,' " said Roy Esquivel, 17, a senior at Thoreau High School, a continuation school in Woodland Hills. "Then they don't want to hook us up. Now, it's going to get worse, not better."
Roy should know. Hope in Youth leaders say they sought people like him when they canvassed crime-ridden neighborhoods two years ago: He was a gang member who had been in juvenile hall twice and a camp for juvenile offenders once.
When Roy joined Hope in Youth about four months ago, a counselor helped find him a job so he'd have money in his pocket. With the fund cutoff, he said matter-of-factly, if he loses his job, he will be in danger of reverting to the old ways: "I'm going to do what I have to do to get money."
Though the group is funded through the end of the year, Hope in Youth leaders said that making up for the closed centers and laid-off workers will not be easy because the group relies so heavily on personal contact between kids and counselors.
Maria Molina, a youth counselor at the Pacoima center at Mary Immaculate Church, said she worries that hundreds of teen-agers will be left in an emotional lurch without the counselors.
"You go into the neighborhood and you bond, and then you have to pull them out," she said, as the teen-agers nodded in agreement. "It's so frustrating--just one disappointment after another."
The teen-agers said part of Hope in Youth's attraction is the way it empowered them. Members are expected to run the meetings, and recently the group's San Fernando Valley chapters organized a Youth Day at Valley College when 300 younger teen-agers showed up to talk about violence and other problems in their communities.
And though Hope in Youth, designed by community and religious organizations, had been at some of the closed sites for only four months, the young people said it has already made an indelible impact.
"You need something to keep us off the streets, or we wind up in police stations or dead," said Emilio Mendez, 18, of North Hollywood High. His Hope in Youth counselor has been laid off.
"There's sports, but all of us aren't good in sports," he added. "When we have meetings, when we get involved, you feel good about yourself, and at the same time you are getting smarter."
Other Hope in Youth members shared their feelings.
Darlene Gutierrez, 17, of Taft High, said the meetings had helped her realize that her ideas were important enough to express in public.
"Before I came, I was scared to speak out," she said.
For classmate Adrianna Ventura, 16, speaking to her counselor had helped her to better relate to her parents.
"They're like from a different time," she said. "We don't see things the same way."
Ruby Martinez, 19, said that without the group she might still be stuck in a continuation school, skipping class, drinking, gang-banging. Now she is getting A's and Bs at Pierce College and has her sights on a career in law or psychology.
And for Elizabeth Ledezma, 17, of San Fernando High, whose parents also receive counseling from the group, Hope in Youth has helped with a variety of things from self-confidence to gang temptation to getting along with her folks.
Still, other anti-gang groups and some public officials have criticized Hope in Youth because it received about $7 million from government sources in its first year while established anti-gang groups were losing public funding. During its first year, the group was also criticized for being too slow in establishing itself in some neighborhoods.
But on this evening, the young people at the table rejected that claim, saying the group was able to connect with them, while other anti-gang groups didn't seem to understand them.
"The other stuff doesn't work," said Roy. "They try to scare you, they tell you you are going to die, stuff like that."
"Like the boogie man," said Ruby.
"They wait for you to mess up, and then they try to show you how you are a failure and so pitiful," said Emilio.
Later, when the talk turned to the future, the teen-agers decided to continue the program, though some would have to car-pool and others would have to go miles out of their way.
"It's like, when I take these steps forward," said Martinez, "I ain't going back."