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L.A. at Large

A Home-Grown Way to Keep Kids Motivated


Annie Dinkins could hear the young children outside her window cursing and fighting. She asked the Lord to do something. Instead, she says, the Lord asked her: What are you doing?

She conferred with her granddaughter, Teiyana Muse, who also was contemplating doing something to mentor the idle children on their block in the Hyde Park district of South Los Angeles.

Two months ago, they formed Youth With Purpose--a weekly gathering of some of the children, held in Muse's apartment. At the Friday night sessions, the children may express their feelings through art, practice the correct way to shake hands for a job interview, or learn a cheer.

There's no paid staff or formal grants in this living-room-based program. Just a grandmother and her granddaughter, a 25-year-old woman humble enough to explain her motivation by saying, "I've always wanted to do something like this, but I was always afraid: What if the kids don't like me?"

Muse lived here until age 9, when she moved to Pomona to live with her father. She knows firsthand that lack of opportunities for children sometimes translates into the uncontrolled energy that her grandmother noticed.

Muse was able to experience middle-class life in Pomona. Two years ago, she returned to Hyde Park, moving into a separate unit in her grandmother's apartment complex, and went to work as a staff member with AmeriCorps, a federal community-service program.

"I got to see both sides of life, the good side and the not-so-good," said Muse, who now works for the YWCA and has a 6-year-old son, Tyler Bratton. "I want to share some of the positive."

On a recent Friday night, about 20 7- to 12-year-olds filled two couches and Muse's living room floor. Muse was assisted by her grandmother and her roommate Lisa Williams, 28, a preschool teacher.

The women took turns springing for the $25 bill for pizza each Friday night until two weeks ago, when a friend of Muse's came to see the program, was impressed and donated $500 for future food expenses.

Muse and her grandmother said their inspiration came from wanting to give alternatives and a positive outlook to children like 9-year-old Brittney Ross. "Miss Annie, if you have low self-esteem, she brings it to high self-esteem," Brittney said.

The children live on a block on 10th Avenue near Slauson. Lately, gang violence has escalated, and there are frequent shootings, said Muse. She recalls returning from church on a recent Sunday when young men started shooting, startling the children playing outside.

Violence on the block has mirrored a steep citywide increase in gang-related shootings in recent months. With that in mind, Muse asked the children on this Friday to draw a picture or write an essay expressing their view of the community.

"I see a gun on the floor, outside on the grass," said Toni Greeno, 7. She included the gun on a drawing of her apartment complex with the sun and birds flying in the sky. She wrote on it: "This is my street. This is a bad street."

Brittney drew a self-portrait that showed her crying. "I was crying because [of] the way they fight in my building," she said. "They come with guns in my building. It's in their pockets, but they show you so you can see."

Muse wants the children to be involved in positive activities--even if it's just playing games with other children in a safe environment. The hourlong session this evening included practicing a cheer tailored for Youth With Purpose and led by 12-year-old Brian Lewis.

Muse hopes to eventually incorporate Youth With Purpose as a nonprofit agency and rent space to operate a youth center. Thanks to donations, she has so far taken the children on field trips to Universal CityWalk and an Anaheim Angels game. She's gotten free tickets for an upcoming L.A. Kings game and is planning a Halloween party.

Now, when 57-year-old Annie Dinkins sees some of the same children who were running wild sitting in her granddaughter's living room as members of Youth With Purpose, she is reminded of the question that started it all.

"You know how today everybody wants everybody else to do something? But then, you have to ask yourself: 'What are you doing?' "

Information: (323) 753-1184.

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