Encouraged to talk about it
Troubled youths unused to being asked to share their feelings find an outlet in a local priest's group therapy sessions.
Karla Valencia, 17, is embraced by a friend outside Santee High School, where she was recently reaccepted after completing studies at SEA Manchester Charter School in South Los Angeles. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
-- Carlos, 17
The little school in South Los Angeles is the end of the road, reserved for those who have bombed out of the rest of the system. The mildest cases were merely kicked out of their last school. The toughest are parolees -- ex-cons, some of them still in no need of a shave.
Earlier this year, they began receiving an unusual visitor. Stan Bosch was a shaggy-headed, motorcycle-riding Catholic priest who'd played college football and had the broad shoulders and busted knees to prove it.
Bosch told them he would never judge them -- and unlike many before him, he held to his pledge. It seemed they could talk about anything with him, so they did. They talked about smoking pot, about getting drunk with their mothers, about being left alone for days at a time. One confessed to a string of burglaries; he said he felt rotten about it but had to find a way to bring home some money. Another said he'd rather be back in jail, where he could be assured meals and a bed.
All the priest asked was that they refrain from calling him "homie." That didn't seem too much to ask.
Bosch, a member of Missionary Servants, an order whose mission is to care for the poor and abandoned, had been a pastor in nearby Compton. The 11 years he'd spent there weighed heavily on him; at times, it seemed the entirety of his ministry was trudging from one hospital to the next in the middle of the night, tending to the grieving relatives of another dead gangbanger.
"I had developed a deep inner sadness," said Bosch, now 54. "I just couldn't do it anymore."
Bosch, seeking a fresh start, accepted an invitation to move into a small rectory at St. Michael Catholic Church on West Manchester Avenue, next door to the school in South L.A. There were 140 students there, give or take. They scored at the bottom of every academic index, according to school administrators. Many were gang members. Some were homeless, some alcoholics. Many had raised themselves, or close to it.
"These are the ones who are not wanted," said Cesar Calderon, director of Soledad Enrichment Action, the nonprofit that operates the school and 18 other charters in L.A. County. "They are the worst of the worst," Calderon said, with great affection somehow.
Bosch had also gone back to school; this spring he earned a doctorate in psychology from the California Graduate Institute of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Westwood.
He had spent much of his doctoral studies investigating the troubles he'd seen. He came across a condition called alexi- thymia: the inability to understand or enunciate one's feelings. Bosch knew that psychologists who'd studied teens in the core of L.A. had found epidemics of post-traumatic stress and depression. This, he felt, was the final piece of the equation: kids who were not just shell-shocked but deeply ashamed, convinced that their peers could not possibly relate to their pain.
Bosch decided he wanted to start holding group therapy at several of the Soledad Enrichment Action campuses, including the Manchester Avenue site. The idea was met with surprise, even derision; Bosch had to acknowledge that next to the profound problems in the neighborhood, touchy-feely therapy seemed like a silly luxury. But Bosch was determined that he could make the biggest difference by asking the kids the simplest questions: "How are you? How do you feel?"
"No one asks them stuff like that," Bosch said. "Not parents. Not teachers. No one."
Bosch had also been asked to supervise the city's gang-reduction programs in two pockets of South L.A. His therapy idea dovetailed with what City Hall views as the future: "wrap-around" services that envelop the toughest cases like a blanket. That means adding new services to a gang-reduction program that has historically careened from one crisis to the next -- all triage, no healing.
Though the shift is still in its infancy, there are proposals to add a host of services that would seem related only peripherally to troubles with gangs and the law: anger management, parenting classes, sex education, arts programs and mental health therapy like what Bosch offers.
"This is a systemic way of looking at health and healing -- not treating symptoms but looking at root causes," Bosch said. "You can't deal with one area of life without asking: Why? Why do kids join gangs? What are the realities of the streets?"
A dizzying descent