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Sandy Banks

Off the Streets and Adapting to a New life of Responsibility

September 26, 2000|Sandy Banks

They call it "independent living," though it's not exactly like being on your own. There's the 9:30 p.m. curfew; the rules that limit when you can talk on the phone, how loud your radio can go; the dress code that tells you how high your socks can reach, what color your shoelaces must be.

But for a dozen young men trying out apartment living on the campus of the Optimist Youth Homes, it's a step up from their last address--locked wards in juvenile halls.

And while they're accustomed to rules and regimentation, it's not the restrictions that shape their lives these days. It's the responsibilities: attend school, go to work, show up at counseling sessions. Keep the house clean, cook, wash clothes, take out the trash, pay bills, shop for groceries. Baby steps on the road toward autonomy.

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For more than 90 years, the sprawling campus of the Optimist Youth Homes in Highland Park has been a temporary home for generations of troubled boys--from the orphans and "wayward" youths of its early years to the gangbangers, drug users and sex offenders who make up its population today.

But even those who benefited from the program's counseling and education often floundered when they left, and wound up back in jail or juvenile hall. "A lot of kids do well in institutions, but then they get out and fall away," explained Optimist director Silvio John Orlando. "Here, we structure their lives . . . but when they're out, they fall back in with their old friends, their old ways, start making the same mistakes that got them in trouble in the first place."

So three years ago, the agency launched a transition program, an experiment in apartment living aimed at preparing 17- and 18-year-olds to move out successfully on their own. Here, in two apartments and a refurbished house on campus, the youths learn not just the rudimentary skills required for independence--how to read bus schedules and electric bills, to make a budget, go shopping, look for an apartment, a job--but the discipline it takes to keep their lives on the straight and narrow.

"A lot of these boys have been in the [justice] system for most of their lives," says counselor Linda Bankowski. "There, nobody can really take the time to look at each kid as an individual and say, 'OK, you're incorrigible, but you're not.' Some of them are salvageable."

A self-described "system kid" herself, Bankowski spent much of her youth in institutional settings. "It gives me an edge because I know what they're going through. I try to respect each kid, but I also know what they're capable of."

And she understands the anger and hopelessness that have fueled their criminal pasts. "A lot of these kids come from families where Mom is on drugs, Dad is in jail . . . all they know is trouble. I don't see any kids who come here who have been given a fair deal. They've been let down again and again at every step in their lives."

Bankowski's first goal is to teach them that they have the power to change their lives.

"They're angry, impulsive, they let their tempers get the best of them. They call about a job and don't get it and they're humiliated; they want to give up or fight somebody.

"We try to tell them, 'Control your impulses, count to 10, think before you speak.' Perseverance, self-discipline, setting goals and working toward them. It's basic stuff, but they've never been given the tools. They've never had a reason to believe."

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Ask 17-year-old Rasul what the Optimists did to help him turn his life around and it's the little stuff he mentions first. "They took me to the beach, Six Flags [Magic Mountain], movie theaters. . . . I know it sounds silly, but that's the stuff I missed out on when I was in the streets."

It's hard to imagine this soft-spoken, bespectacled teen "in the streets." But Rasul spent most of the last four years moving in and out of juvenile hall in his hometown of San Diego.

"Gangbanging, smoking weed, robbing people . . . that's all I did since I was 13. That's all I knew to do." Eventually, he got tired of "always being locked up for something." But he discovered that his choices in the past were limiting his options for the future. "There were schools I couldn't go to, probation was always watching me. It felt like there was no way out."

Now at Optimists, he's working, studying for his GED, planning to enroll in college next year. "Up here," he says, "I stay out of trouble, I don't break the rules. I don't want them to take my privileges away. I realize that there's this other kind of life, and there's a price to pay, but it is within my reach."

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. She's at sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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