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LOS ANGELES | TIMES HOLIDAY FUND

A 'New Man' Credits the Assistance He Received

November 07, 2002|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

When Rico Mendez was 3, he lost his dad to disease. A few years later, his mother was jailed. The New York native came west to live with relatives in Los Angeles, but he said he left them at age 18 after too many taunts that he was nothing but a bum.

In September 2001, Mendez found himself in circumstances he had never imagined: frightened, depressed, hungry and homeless.

That's when he found Covenant House, the nation's largest nonprofit organization serving homeless and runaway young people. In the year since, Mendez has undergone a startling transformation.

Not only does he have three square meals a day and a warm, safe place to sleep, but he has also landed a job as an usher at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood and is preparing for his high school equivalency degree, thanks to Covenant House's educational and employment skills center. He has discovered a cause of his learning problems: attention deficit disorder, which Covenant House's on-site health clinic diagnosed and treated.

And Mendez says he has found a new inner peace, thanks to conversations with ministers that the faith-based organization makes available.

"I am a new man," Mendez, 20, said recently as he shared his story along with four other participants in the program. "When I first called Covenant House, I was crying, with nowhere to go. My life has done a 180-degree turn."

Covenant House was established by a Catholic priest in New York in 1972 and today operates 21 centers in the United States, Central America, Mexico and Canada. The Los Angeles affiliate, in an eye-catching rust, mustard and purple building on Western Avenue in Hollywood, began in 1988 with its signature service: "street outreach" to find and help homeless youths.

Covenant House California offers emergency housing and a full range of medical, employment and educational services. Sister Mary Rose McGeady, president of the California operation, said her staff also tries to offer something essential to rehabilitation that most of her charges have never received: "unconditional love and absolute respect."

According to Executive Director George Lozano, the Los Angeles branch serves as many as 100 young people a day who range in age from 22 to as young as 11. The $9-million California operation, which includes a site in Oakland, is largely funded by private donations -- including $15,000 from last year's Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign.

For Charles Frazier, who said he left an abusive father at age 17 three years ago, Covenant House has brought a loving new family, support to realize his dream of studying sports management at Santa Monica College and rich life experiences -- a chance earlier this year, for instance, to hear Pope John Paul II speak in Toronto.

"If it weren't for Covenant House," Frazier said, "Lord knows where I'd be."

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