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Too Good for Its Own Good

Youth: A juvenile facility has doubled its caseload and started more therapy programs. But it needs a new building to relieve overcrowding.


Success is hurting the Optimist Youth Home, even as it works to reform more and more troubled teens.

The Highland Park facility has doubled the amount of children it serves and started new kinds of therapy in the last 15 years but with no corresponding growth in space. This has prompted some creative innovations:

On a recent day a therapist counseled a boy on an outdoor bench, even as a raucous football team practiced on a nearby field.

Boys used expletive-filled rap to vent their frustrations during music therapy sessions in a tiny chapel.

One therapy supervisor, unable to find an open office, conducted meetings in her car.

Tired of the constant struggle to find space, officials have undertaken a campaign to build a 21,000-square-foot classroom building by 2003 to aid their troubled charges.

Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 4, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Optimist Youth Home--A story in the California section on Nov. 24 incorrectly reported the cost of constructing a proposed 21,000-square-foot classroom building at the Optimist Youth Home in Highland Park. The cost is $2.2 million.

Home administrators say the building is integral to the success of the 95-year-old facility, home to 100 boys on probation and the hub of several social service agencies, including a 200-student high school.

The Los Angeles Planning Commission is scheduled to discuss the building proposal Dec. 6. If the plans win approval, officials still have to raise $22 million to erect the building. Teachers and administrators say they have little choice.

"Little by little, we're being edged out of different spaces," said art therapist Megan Barr. "Our creativity is reaching its limitations."

Since taking the helm nearly three years ago, Executive Director Silvio Orlando has instituted new programs, such as art and music therapy, and an adoption agency.

"I knew even before I started that we needed another building," he said. "Then I made things worse when I got here by making things better for the kids."

The youngsters living at the home, from age 12 to 18, have violated probation for crimes ranging from dealing drugs to robbery. They live in dormitories and attend the Optimist high school along with an additional 100 boys and girls, most of whom have been referred from the Los Angeles Unified School District for truancy and behavior problems. The home is supported with funding from the county as well as Optimist Clubs.

Space shortages have forced therapists to share offices, prompting the need for outdoor counseling when social workers have sessions scheduled at the same time.

"We're sitting on one another's laps," said assistant director Jane Bolen, who has worked at the facility for 17 years. "This is an agency . . . where we've never had a staff lounge. If we did, it would immediately be converted into office space."

Sometimes improvising classrooms isn't just uncomfortable, it's unsettling. That's the case in the dimly lighted chapel, where music therapist Amy Donnenwerth uses rap to teach the boys constructive ways to release their anger.

"Some of the kids don't feel right discussing those things in a religious setting," Donnenwerth said. "They feel awkward, but it's the only space we have."

Outside of therapy, the space crunch has packed 25 high school students into classrooms meant for 15.

In one classroom on a Thursday afternoon, four teachers led four classes at the same time. Students played multiplication bingo in one corner, while others completed long division work sheets in another. Other students learned about the periodic table as art students shaded chalk portraits.

The new building would add 16 classrooms to the existing nine, along with a library and underground parking. The school has about 50 parking spaces but nearly 220 staff members.

An additional parking lot should ease tension among area residents who resent home employees parking on their streets. Although the Upper Highland Park Neighborhood Alliance supports the new building, others think the facility shouldn't have grown so much in the first place.

"You can't even hardly get in your driveway, and the street sweeper can't do anything but drive down the middle of the street," said Irene Gonzalez, 63, whose house adjoins the facility. She can pick out every car on Annan Way that belongs to a staff member.

Incorporated in 1934, the home was created when a county judge persuaded a farmer to take in wayward boys at his chicken ranch.

Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services now operates seven six-bed homes in three counties, a licensed adoptions program and a foster family agency, in addition to the school and residential facility on the main campus.

A frequent visitor to the Youth Home over the years has been the presiding judge of the juvenile court, Terry Friedman, and the home's extensive art lessons have impressed him the most.

"These are kids who generally have failed much of their lives: academically, relationships, certainly behaviorally," he said. "For them to feel that they can express themselves and appeal to others, as art done well can do, gives them a feeling of power and success overall."

Singing in the Optimist choir--along with his 1-year-old daughter and a job at Tommy's hamburger restaurant--has motivated Johnnie to stay out of trouble. The 18-year-old has lived at the home for two years after being convicted of robbery, which he used to supply his drug habit.

"I was at a point where I had nothing and there was nothing to look forward to," he said. A drug addict since he was 9 years old, Johnnie used crime to fill the void his unsupportive family created. "Now my high is my little girl."

But officials say the youth home has to grow if such success stories are to continue.

"It's a total wrapping of services around these children," said Joan Probst, the facility's community services director.

"It's getting children to become productive adults and returning them to the mainstream of the community."

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