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Los Angeles | TIMES HOLIDAY CAMPAIGN

Youngsters Learn How to Navigate the Difficult Years

November 05, 2003|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

With its shuttered businesses, howling traffic and history of shootings, the corner of 91st Street and Western Avenue would seem no place for children.

But step inside the cluster of offices at 9106 Western Ave. and it is hard to imagine a better place in this neighborhood for kids.

The Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center has been a fixture along these mean streets since 1990, when a shy, God-fearing woman named Myrtle Faye Rumph opened the after-school center as a tribute to her son, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1989.

"When he died, it seemed like a wasted life, and I didn't want his life to be wasted. I couldn't live with that," said Rumph, 72. "He was on Earth for a reason, and somebody took that reason away from him. Now I feel like I am carrying it on."

Since its opening, several thousand youths have called the after-school center a home away from home. A place where they can gather -- safe from the streets -- to read, write, listen to music or simply talk.

"When I started coming here, it was crates to sit on and a chalkboard," recalled Lamar Porter, one of the center's first four members. "It was the thing to do. The parks weren't safe at the time [and] this was a place I could get my homework done."

Now, a dozen years after he first entered the center's doors, Porter, 25, is assistant director of its new Teen Center. And the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center, he said, is still a refuge. "It's a way out from the negativity of the streets," Porter said.

Each day, 30 to 50 youths descend on the center. From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., the younger ones, ages 8 to 13, visit a computer room, the Rhino Records study hall or the Ella Fitzgerald library room, named for the late singer, an avid reader who -- like Rhino -- was an early donor to the center.

The Times fund recently contributed $15,000 to the center's one-on-one tutorial program, which provides professional help for students in reading, math and science.

The tutorial program follows the same basic principle that has always guided the center. "It gives the kids a place to go when they leave school," Rumph said. "Three to 6 p.m. is a crucial time for kids. They walk the streets, and the streets are not safe."

Once a week, there is also a "Boys to Men" program, in which counselors help youths navigate some of the most difficult years imaginable. "A lot of these kids don't have role models at home," said Linda Broadous Miles, the center's executive director. "And this program is a way to get them role models."

Recently, a $50,000 Ahmanson Foundation grant enabled Rumph to buy the center's 3,400-square-foot headquarters.

Two doors down is the center's latest addition: a meeting hall for older teens and young adults. "We felt the teens needed their own space," Miles said.

Today, only a few years after Rumph and her late husband sold their home to keep the center open, it runs on an annual budget of $518,000 with a staff of 11 employees, seven of them full-time.

And Rumph has kept alive a tribute to her son, who this year would have turned 50.

"A lot of kids have come through here. Lots of them have come back," she said. "It's great to see them grow up."

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