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From Inner City to Igloos

For two youths, the trip to Antarctica was an eye- and mind-opening experience. For Mike Hoover, it fulfilled a promise and a memory.

January 15, 1997|MAKI BECKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Beverly Johnson and Mike Hoover made a pact: They would try to somehow enrich the lives of Los Angeles' inner-city children.

They were husband and wife, award-winning documentary cinematographers who had filmed the guerrilla war in Afghanistan for CBS. They had traveled the world, but had never ventured into the lower-income neighborhoods of their hometown.

After the Los Angeles riots of 1992, Hoover and Johnson, residents of Eagle Rock, started making frequent trips to South-Central Los Angeles, trying to get a feel for the area.

One day, they were watching youngsters playing basketball at a South-Central recreation center. Johnson turned to her husband. Hoover still remembers the words she spoke: "These are our kids."

And then she died in an April 1994 helicopter crash in Nevada, returning from a skiing trip. It was big news, but only because the other passenger who died was Walt Disney Co. President Frank G. Wells.

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To remain faithful to their shared promise, Hoover started the Beverly Johnson Memorial Fund. With the money he raised through the fund, Hoover decided to open the eyes, and minds, of a few inner-city youngsters.

"The idea was to send good kids, only good kids, on whatever program we could find," Hoover said.

Last summer, he arranged for two Los Angeles teenagers to attend the Teton Science School in Kelly, Wyo.

And a few weeks ago, he sent Ryan Buchanan, 13, a student at Walton Middle School in Compton, and Quanisha Shuler, 15, a student at Crenshaw High, to Antarctica.

"A friend of mine, Anne Kershaw, runs the Adventure Network which flies people into Antarctica. She called and said, 'I know this sounds kooky, but I'm able to send a couple of kids down,' " Hoover said.

That would be fabulous, he told her.

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Neither of the two teenagers selected for the trip had ever been farther away than Mississippi or seen snow.

Now, Ryan and Quanisha, who returned home last week, have traveled more than 16,000 miles round-trip, constructed an igloo, zipped across the ice on snowmobiles, experienced 24-hour daylight and sipped the freshest water they have ever tasted, made from Antarctic ice run through a snow melter.

On the night before the trip, the teenagers and their families met at Hoover's home in Eagle Rock. In his living room, decorated with Oscars and artifacts from around the world, Hoover tried to prepare the youngsters for what they would encounter.

They would be staying at a campsite at Patriot Hills, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole, where "it is so cold and so inhospitable to life, you can't get sick there," said Hoover, who had filmed several expeditions to Antarctica. They would be expected to help out with chores--melting snow for drinking water and cleaning up after meals--to earn their keep.

"My baby will be so far away," worried Luline Dotson, Ryan's mother. "I expect him to come back changed. He is already on the threshold of manhood."

Quanisha and Ryan bid farewell to their nervous mothers at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 17 and flew to Santiago, Chile, where they transferred to a smaller plane to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world. After getting dressed in their extreme-cold weather gear, they boarded a C-130 military cargo plane operated by the Adventure Network and headed due south for Patriot Hills.

They stayed at the campgrounds for two weeks with a group of youngsters from Poland and Britain, who had won similar contests to get to Antarctica.

The teenagers were disoriented by the 24 hours of sunlight. Quanisha said they wiled away the nighttime hours by playing cards. They skied for hours, met with explorers, ate meals right off the crystal-clean ice and explored a couple of old plane crash sites.

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Ryan camped out one night in the igloo that the youngsters had built. "I woke up covered in snow," he said.

On Christmas, Quanisha and the kids from Poland and the U.K. went from tent to tent, singing carols and banging on pots and pans. Later, they exchanged gifts from their home countries and ate turkey prepared by the camp cooks.

A week after the teenagers returned, the families got together with Hoover again, this time at a Sizzler in Inglewood, to pass around stacks of photographs, souvenirs and swap stories about their experiences.

Quanisha said she was shocked when, just after landing on Antarctica, the back of the cargo plane opened and she saw for the first time through her snow goggles the awesome vastness of the continent.

"It was like a dream just seeing all that ice," she said, her opening wide.

For Ryan, the most remarkable aspect was the silence of the land.

"It was just so quiet," he said, carefully choosing his words. "I've never been to a place that was so quiet."

The stories were flying. Hoover leaned over the restaurant table.

"This whole thing is about access," he said. "These kids went straight from South-Central and Compton to Antarctica. What happens when you do something like this is that you whet their appetite."

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