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Thanks to Mentors, Children Have a Say

March 16, 2001|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Between nibbles of chicken en croute, 13-year-old Laura Morales tried to quell the butterflies. "I'm scared," she said, scanning the audience of more than 200 in the Biltmore Bowl.

But when the time came, Laura, an eighth-grader at Mount Vernon Middle School in central Los Angeles, was ready. With a poise that belied her stage fright, she praised her mentor, Deputy Atty. Gen. Cindy Lopez, as "very cool" and then shared with her audience a promise she made to herself. That promise: To "try my best in school and be the first in my family to go to college."

Laura was one of more than 20 "mentees," as they are called, at Wednesday's first Lanterns Award Luncheon, co-sponsored by three groups of women with bona-fide mentor credentials: The Latina Lawyers Bar Assn., Black Women Lawyers Assn., and Women Lawyers Assn.

The keynoter and honoree was Marian Wright Edelman, founder/president of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, who later was on hand for the official opening of the fund's Los Angeles office at 3655 S. Grand Ave.

The luncheon theme was borrowed from Edelman's 1999 book, "Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors," and Edelman, a Yale Law School graduate and former civil-rights attorney, showed that, at 61, the fire within still burns brightly when it comes to fighting for children.

In introducing her, L.A. civil-rights attorney Connie Rice (a second cousin of President Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice) called Edelman "the beacon whom we follow" on children's justice issues, the antithesis of those opportunists "who gather poor children around them when they're getting elected" to office.

The mission of the fund, founded in 1973 and privately funded through grants and donations: To be a voice for all children, especially the poor, minorities and the disabled, and to see that they have good health care, good educations and safe communities in which to grow up.

Edelman was speaking directly to Laura and the other mentees when she told them: "You can do anything and be anything. Don't let anyone tell you what you cannot do and what you cannot be."

Laura isn't yet sure what she wants to do and be--either "a police officer or a lawyer or a teacher or a doctor." One of seven siblings, she was born in the Mexican state of Durango and came here with her parents 11 years ago. Her father, a former general in the Mexican army who works as a mechanic, hopes she'll be a policeman. Her mother, a homemaker, hopes Laura will become a hairdresser as she once was. But Laura would "rather be something bigger."

She is one of 30 Mount Vernon girls in the mentoring program sponsored by MOSTE--Motivating Our Students Through Experience--a 15-year-old project for which the three women's bar associations supply mentors. The women are paired with girls from the school who have expressed interest and would potentially benefit from mentoring. Through corporate donations and fund-raisers such as this luncheon, MOSTE has established a scholarship fund. Eighth-graders may apply, and the money is held for those who qualify until they are college-bound.

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Mentee Roxana Cardenas, a sweet-faced 12-year-old with glitter in her dark hair, a child of Mexican immigrants, she is partnered with lawyer Yvonne Flores and thinks she'd like to be a lawyer. Rosa Gonzalez, 12, wants to be a doctor. She came to the United States 11 years ago with her father, a truck driver, and her mother, a former Avon lady who is now a homemaker.

Yoconda Rezabala, 12, who has a tiny braid with a blue bead grazing one cheek, wants to be an obstetrician. Her father, from Ecuador, and her mother, from Belize, both are nurses' assistants working with convalescent patients. Yoconda's mentor is Maribel Juarez, an aide to Sen. Barbara Boxer. Veronica Jeronimo, 12, is mentored by attorney Araceli Lerma and hopes to be a veterinarian. She is one of eight children of Mexican immigrants--a homemaker who "used to clean houses" and a house painter.

Lerma, a graduate of Occidental College and UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall school of law, grew up in East L.A. without an official mentor, but was inspired by a sister who was the first in the family to attend college. She thinks it's "essential for professionals and people of color who have excelled in their professions to contribute to their community" by exposing young people to educational and job opportunities.

Bernadette Bennett is a teacher at Mount Vernon and liaison to MOSTE. She says she was mentored by her mother, a teacher, while growing up in Louisiana. An educator for 35 years, Bennett is the mother of three, including a daughter who is a pediatrician. While medicine and law are the most popular career goals of the girls in the mentoring program, she knows part of her job is to tell them about other careers, too--careers that, for some, may be more realistic.

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In her talk, Edelman wasted no time reminding everyone of President Bush's promise to "leave no child behind." She is determined to hold him to it. "It cannot be a fig leaf for unjust policies."

Since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968, she noted, the number of seniors living in poverty has decreased by 60%, but the number or children living in poverty has increased 8%. "Child poverty is not an act of God. It is our moral and political choice as a nation."

Edelman, soon to be a grandmother, said she would love to see a parade of people pushing strollers to the Capitol to demand justice for children. And she promised to keep making demands of lawmakers "until we wear them out."

The Children's Defense Fund will roll out its "Leave No Child Behind" campaign at its annual conference April 18-21 in Washington, D.C. Edelman says, "We'll be talking about how we can mobilize to engage and enlighten our leaders" and then "just keep at it until we change priorities."

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