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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Sometimes Safety Nets Catch Diamonds

August 07, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The story of Yvonne Chavez and Samuel Parra could be a living example of every social pathology that politicians are so fond of trying to "fix" these days.

The children of immigrants, Yvonne and Sam grew up fatherless and impoverished in Los Angeles. They joined gangs to fill gaping emotional holes they couldn't have even begun to articulate back then. They dropped out of school. Sam became a prisoner of his neighborhood--fearful of stepping onto enemy turf, living a life so circumscribed that at the age of 18, when he needed to take a bus along Vermont Avenue, a mile or so from his home, he didn't even know where the street was. Yvonne got pregnant at 15 because she had to prove her love and knew nothing about birth control. No one was surprised either. After all, her mother had gotten pregnant as an unmarried teenager too. De tal palo, tal astilla, they said, a chip off the old block.

Two social scourges: a teenage welfare mom and a gangbanger. When their son was 6 months old, Yvonne and Sam decided to grow up and did what they thought that meant. They married. She was 16, he was 21. Yvonne thought marriage would mean instant happiness. "This," she says, "is what our culture teaches us."

Sam worked for minimum wage, couldn't quite pull away from his homeboys, lost his job and beat Yvonne when she cried. And she cried all the time. It came naturally, Sam says, to respond with anger to someone else's pain.

You can imagine where they were headed--prison maybe for Sam, or perhaps an early death. Divorce, certainly. Welfare dependency for Yvonne. The whole tiresome catalog.

But that's not their story.

And therein lies a lesson for those who would strip away the safety nets, who would erase the special programs aimed at giving a lift to those who might otherwise sink.

*

After Yvonne and Sam married, they continued to receive food stamps and Medi-Cal. Yvonne wanted to return to high school, but Sam brought home only $400 a month. Day care for their son, Cristian, was out of the question. Yvonne discovered Business Industry School, a continuation high school in the Mid-City area with on-site day care and an intensely supportive parenting program for teen mothers. She came to believe what she was constantly told there: You are special, you are important, you can be a great parent and contributor . . . and you don't have to put up with a man who beats you.

Yvonne and Sam had a second child, Crystal, but the marriage was precarious. Sam couldn't pull away from the gang, couldn't seem to stop hitting her. When Yvonne earned her high school diploma in 1992, she felt strong enough to give an ultimatum: We leave L.A., she said, or I leave you.

Yvonne was 18. Sam was 23.

He agreed to move to San Diego County.

They got counseling, and still do. The violence stopped.

"I want to be different," Sam says. "I want my kids to look up to me."

Someone at school had suggested that Yvonne look into attending college. Yvonne knew that college was some sort of school but wasn't sure what kind exactly.

After the move, she found a junior college in Chula Vista. A counselor urged her to sign up with an affirmative action project that was aimed at increasing the number of Latino students transferring into four-year colleges.

This is how Yvonne ended up on a full-scholarship--that's $28,000 a year's worth--to USC last fall. Which led to her election to the student senate. Which led to her selection as one of 70 students who will partake in the school's "Washington semester."

In 12 days, 22-year-old Yvonne Chavez is to board a plane for the nation's capital. She will spend 2 1/2 months studying public administration . . . and working in the White House.

Sam, 26, will work, care for the kids and keep studying for his high school diploma. It's worth it for her to go, he says, but the look in his eyes says he's ambivalent. Still, he doesn't dream of holding Yvonne back.

"I'm proud of her," he says. "She's gonna pull everyone up."

*

This was supposed to be a story about Yvonne, who, with her grit and quiet determination took advantage of welfare, affirmative action and mentoring to achieve far more than what was expected.

But here, too, is an unusually positive portrait of a young man who saw what fate had mapped out for him and sought consciously to change it.

"He must have really understood that they had both bottomed out," says Yvonne's high school mentor. "I wish a lot of other men could hear his story."

Maybe they will. Maybe it will be Sam's turn at college after Yvonne graduates and enrolls in law school.

Anything is possible. They've already proved it.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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