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Personal Best

A Close- Up Look At People Who Matter : Imparting the Love of Study to Parolees

August 31, 1995|ED BOND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Where anyone else might have simply seen $500 and a nice plaque, Patricia Franco saw a $15,000 dream to help young people get an education.

"If I hadn't done anything productive with the money, it would not have meant anything," said Franco, a parole officer with the California Youth Authority, who had been honored in May for her community work by the American Justice Institute.

Franco took the $500 award check and started the San Fernando Valley Opportunity Through Education Scholarship Fund in June.

As a teen-ager, Franco did poorly in school. Her family had left their home in Compton to flee gang violence and moved to Mexico, but Franco did not speak Spanish well enough. Then her mother died just after Patricia turned 16, but not before instilling in her daughter the importance of education. Returning to the U.S., Franco remembered her mother's words and eventually earned a master's degree.

As a parole officer working with offenders ages 16 to 25, she saw that the only difference between her and them was the education her mother had taught her to value.

"People need to learn they have choices in life," said Franco, who worked as a parole officer in East Los Angeles before moving to a Panorama City office four years ago.

"She's got a lot of patience," said Jess Gutierrez, a fellow parole officer who co-chairs Franco's scholarship committee. Franco recruited other committee members from among various youth groups, police, schools and anti-gang activists.

"She's a go-getter," Gutierrez said of Franco. "She hustles, a tireless effort. She's got a lot of energy. Sometimes I have to remind her to slow down."

On a shelf in her office are thick white binders that record the fund-raising efforts so far--$1,900. But she has confidence that by the February deadline she set for the committee, the binders will record their $15,000 goal.

Carwashes and T-shirt sales have been the major means of raising funds so far. Franco has recruited help from police as well as from former parolees and gang members. Members of rival gangs from Pacoima, San Fernando and Blythe Street in Van Nuys have been working side by side, she said.

"We're going to do as many carwashes as we can until it gets cold," said Alex Martinez of Community Youth Gang Services and also a committee member. Other fund-raisers, such as a letter-writing campaign to local businesses, are planned.

"To me, the scholarship is my passion," Franco said. "I know I can make a difference in someone's life."

Martinez respects Franco's determination to make the scholarship fund succeed. Her example is something that youth and gang members need. "We live in a quitter's generation," Martinez said. "Everybody quits on each other."

Some of the same kids working to raise the scholarship money may get a share in it. The scholarship is targeted for average high school students going on to college or a trade school. "I want them to feel like, 'Hey, I was a part of that,' " Franco said.

"I can't wait until the day we have our banquet," said Franco, savoring the thought of the kids dressing up for the occasion.

"Maybe I should get fitted for my tux," Martinez said.

Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338 .

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