Genese Hill said it all began when 3-year-old Ronisha Corbin posed the perennial summer vacation question most adults dread.
"She said, 'Auntie G, what are we going to do now?' " recalled Hill, who was seated in the living room of her Hyde Park home, where neighborhood children frequently gather.
"I started thinking, and I realized there was really nothing to do in this neighborhood. Kids are afraid to play in the streets because of gangs. They can't go anywhere. I figured it's up to the adults to do something about that."
So Hill, an energetic post office employee who works an evening shift, started a girl's drill team.
The group garnered so much interest so quickly that Hill and her neighbor Bill Burgess expanded the project into Operation Wakeup, a grass-roots effort to provide young people with activities, boost their self-esteem and facilitate peace in Hyde Park's gang-ridden neighborhoods.
Operation Wakeup held its first successful event July 15, a peace march through Hyde Park that attracted 200 residents, children and gang members past and present.
Participants carried signs with such slogans as "Save the Community," "Peace on the Streets" and "Wake Up."
The five-hour event concluded with a rally, speeches and a picnic near 59th Street Elementary School. Local businesses donated food and covered most of the printing for flyers that were passed out in the neighborhood.
"It went so well, we almost couldn't believe it," said Burgess, 35, a former Rolling '60s gang member who has two daughters.
"There are a lot of people who want to make a change in the neighborhood who didn't really know how. There's so much togetherness in the community . . . we have to use it, keep it out there."
Burgess wrote the plan for Operation Wakeup two years ago, but shelved it because he didn't quite know how to implement it.
But with the first event planned and executed in nine days, he and Hill are enthusiastic about enacting the plan's other phases: Self-awareness classes, basketball teams, a rap-video club and parent seminars.
A first fund-raiser, scheduled for Aug. 12, will offer baked goods, carwashes and other services for sale to raise money for athletic uniforms and other expenses.
Burgess and Hill say the key to Operation Wakeup's success is parental involvement.
"The whole idea behind this project is for adults to get the kids' attention, be their coaches and counselors," Burgess said.
"We have to be the role models. Kids don't see enough of the positive."
Burgess speaks from bitter experience. A 20-year gang member who admitted he had no idea in the 1970s that gangs would become as vicious as they have, Burgess was gunned down in 1987 by rival gang members at Slauson and 4th avenues.
The experience left him a quadriplegic who must use a wheelchair, but also convinced that he had to devote his time to ensuring that others did not travel the same unfortunate path. His first step in that endeavor was joining Mt. Mariah Baptist Church in South-Central, where he quickly became involved in youth counseling.
"I just started writing this program when I joined the church," Burgess said of his Operation Wake-up plan. "We can't afford to waste time anymore. The 77th Police Division has a new station, but where is our rec center?"
For all their ambition, Burgess and Hill say they know they face an uphill financial battle. In addition to sports equipment, they want to acquire a recreation center. They have their sights set on the old Cal-Femme Sportswear building on Crenshaw Boulevard near 60th Street, and have started talking to Councilwoman Ruth Galanter's office about possibilities.
Money may be lacking, but not interest: 50 parents have already signed up as Operation Wakeup volunteers. "The people are waiting for something," Hill said.
Information: (213) 778-2778 or (213) 751-8864.