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Police Program for At-Risk Youth Struggles to Survive Funding Cut

The Valley

July 08, 2002|STEPHANIE STASSEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Reseda youth center that has served 5,000 children since its inception is in danger of closing after losing $200,000 in state funding.

Although other Police Activity League Supporters programs in the Los Angeles Police Department are stable, the West Valley PALS Youth Center could shut down in three months if more money isn't found.

The closure would affect kids ages 7 to 17 who come to the storefront on Reseda Boulevard to box, shoot pool or play arcade video games. The activities are supervised by a no-nonsense cop who enforces the rules and provides guidance.

"The center has a major impact on kids. There aren't a lot of places like this where they can go for free," said LAPD Officer John Mann, who staffs the center during its open hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays in the summer and during school breaks, and from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays during the school year.

About 100 community volunteers are struggling to keep it afloat.

"I went to the mailbox today and picked up a whole bunch of bills. I don't know where the money is going to come from," said Marie-Michelle Hewett, president of West Valley PALS, which was started in the early 1970s to give area youth a safe place to go after school and during the summer. "I look at every bill and try to trim everything to a bare minimum."

Until the first installment of a new $24,600 grant from the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency is received in about two weeks, the West Valley PALS bank account has only $400, Hewett said. And the redevelopment agency money will cover expenses--about $5,000 a month, including $3,250 monthly for rent--for only a short time.

The center regularly gives about 200 youths a safe place to hang out.

Jesus Macias, 12, said he walks there several times a week with his 7-year-old brother and 14-year-old sister because, "I get to have fun with my friends. If I didn't come here, I'd be lying around the house or somewhere out in the street."

Other kids at the center are involved in Jeopardy, another LAPD program for youths considered "at risk" because of troubles at school or home. One Jeopardy participant said he has been coming to the center for seven months, since he got in trouble at his middle school. He calls Mann his mentor.

"He's cool. He helps set you straight. If I didn't come here, I would be getting in trouble."

If the center closes, the West Valley Division's Jeopardy program would be affected too, said on-site supervising LAPD Officer Michael Maldonado. Kids in Jeopardy who don't have supervised after-school activities are required, as part of a contract between the LAPD and their parents, to be at the center, under the watchful eyes of Maldonado and Mann.

Youngsters who have been in trouble with the law can be ordered by a Juvenile Court judge to enroll in the Jeopardy program. Other participants are referred by school counselors or parents concerned the child is likely to get in trouble.

"It would be devastating if the center closed," Maldonado said. "Most of my kids have a single parent, and the mother doesn't have anywhere to put them."

"I was so happy about the grant. I'd put in for it and got it approved," Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) said. "Then, for the first time in the history of California, we had to go back into the budget. This was one of many, many grants that were cut."

Hertzberg said he "begged them [to restore the funding] because this was an important need," but he was unsuccessful.

Losing the state grant was like "having the rug pulled out from under you," said Sgt. Cindy Brounsten, advisor to West Valley PALS.

"I've been awake nights worrying about how we'll keep this place open," she said. "We don't want kids on the streets with nothing to do. Sometimes it leads to negative behavior, or they might become victims. It's better for everybody that kids are in a program."

For now, West Valley PALS will depend on a variety of fund-raisers--from donation bins at a local Vons market to a $5-a-plate spaghetti dinner--to get by as organizers hunt for a major long-term donor. Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine has suggested exploring a move to a city-owned building, where rent would be nominal.

The Devonshire PALS center, located in a shopping center, pays just $1 per year in rent. Most of the other seven PALS programs in the LAPD operate out of recreation centers or schools, so their overhead costs are minimal.

"Instead of finding funds for rent, let's look at ways to keep them afloat," Zine said.

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