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A cool idea for keeping violence at bay during Southern California's hot summer

In the Safe and Sober Summer Campaign, volunteers hand out ice-cold water at a busy Gardena intersection to keep drivers from turning to beer when temperatures soar.

July 27, 2009|Nicole Santa Cruz

On a recent Sunday evening, Karen McGee stepped into a busy intersection in Gardena and began tapping on the windows of cars stopped at the light, offering ice-cold bottles of water to those inside.

She countered suspicious stares with a broad smile and the words "free" and "gratis."

One man cautiously rolled down his window just enough for her to hand a bottle through. Other times, she has more luck, she said. The previous week, someone traded a can of beer for one of her bottles.

"That could have saved somebody's life," said McGee, 41, who was in Gardena for the Safe and Sober Summer Campaign. Sponsored by community groups including the Southern California Cease Fire Committee and Project Cry No More, the campaign aims to hand out more than 10,000 bottles of water on various street corners of L.A. this summer.

As a strategy to boost sobriety and stem violence, it may seem like a drop in the bucket, but McGee, of Compton, and others who volunteer to hand out water believe they not only can help quench the community's thirst but also offer people alternatives to liquor.

"I was once part of the problem. Now I try to be part of the solution," said McGee, a gang interventionist, who like many other volunteers comes from a troubled background.

Ben "Taco" Owens, a Cease Fire Committee board member, said one hope is that the program can help change habits.

"If the norm is to go get a beer to quench their thirst on a hot summer day and instead they get a bottle of water, we feel we've made an impact," he said.

He said the program is focused on the summer because violence tends to spike during the hot months.

At 6:30 p.m. on that recent Sunday, volunteers hustled to fill red and green plastic bins with ice and cases of water.

One volunteer, Adriene Goodrich, said the busy Gardena intersection brought back some bad memories because she used to get drunk and high in the neighborhood.

"It's cheaper to buy beer in these neighborhoods than it is to buy water," said Goodrich, now a substance-abuse counselor.

Although some drivers view the volunteers warily, others pull over to the side of the road for a conversation. On this evening, a woman in a silver Camry accepted a bottle, searched the label for some sort of hook or catch, found none and said, "Wow."

Monty Johnson, a truck driver on his way home to Carson, said getting a freebie was unexpected.

"I thought they were selling it for a fundraiser or something and I was going to make a donation," he said.

The campaign might make him think twice next time he's thirsty.

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nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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