Undercutting Gangs : Surplus Olympic Funds Allotted to Divert ‘Want-to-Be’ Youngsters With Sports Activity

Times Staff Writer

The Fickett Street Gang was gathering in East Los Angeles for its nighttime activities, mainly loitering at its favorite places, and alongside the regular members were Benjamin Aguila, 14; Cesar Murillo, 12, and Luis Romero, 11.

Another youth, Juan Castaneda, 15, said a rival gang member had hit him on the head with a beer bottle the night before. It had not been a full-fledged fight, he said, just a scuffle. Castaneda did not seem much worse for wear, but he told the story in a bragging manner.

It is not unusual, said Ana Lizarraga of the county- and city-sponsored Community Youth Gang Services, for children so young to be involved with gangs. The hard-core members are older, but the entry age, when youngsters become acquainted with gang life, is as low as 10, Lizarraga said.

These “want-to-bes,” as law enforcement gang experts call them, are now being targeted with new programs to divert them from gangs into other activities. The largest diversion program--sports clubs in six economically deprived minority areas--is set to get under way early next year, thanks to a $349,990 grant from the foundation distributing the Los Angeles Olympic surplus.


The Community Youth Gang Services agency, formed in 1981 to intervene to stop gang violence by mediating or in crisis situations to head off trouble, still spends most of its time and funds on such intervention. But it is also moving into “prevention” programs--the sports clubs, parents’ awareness groups and youth teams that paint murals to combat graffiti--to keep kids from joining the gangs in the first place.

“The trend of gang violence is toward drugs,” Tony Massengale, the agency’s assistant director, said. “If gang violence becomes mostly drug-related, then what CYGS is saying is we can’t control it with intervention alone. What we can try to do in that case is to cut off its recruitment mechanism.”

Or, as Steve Valdivia, the agency executive director, said, “we’re trying to provide different role models, a different way to go.”

The idea is also championed by Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Larry Kramer, head of the Police Department’s gang enforcement group and a member of the service agency’s board.


“LAPD totally supports the idea that prevention is the only cure,” Kramer said. “We recognize the hard-core gang member as a criminal predator. The chances of weaning them away are slim. But these groups must recruit to survive, and prevention may reach those kids.”

Kramer provided two statistics to show something of the nature of gang violence. In 1984, about 40% of the nearly 200 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County involved narcotics. And 85% of the victims of gang crimes in the city were not among the estimated 40,000 gang members.

Valdivia and Massengale do not completely agree with Kramer, however, that prevention is the only way to reduce the growth of gangs and their violence. They hope to wean some gang members from destructive life styles. One new program is directed at doing just that.

The agency’s intervention teams and administration costs, constituting the major part of its activity, are financed by $1.25 million in county money and $855,000 from the city. In the meantime, it has been seeking private funds for prevention programs.

The agency’s biggest success came earlier this month when the Los Angeles Organizing Committee’s Amateur Athletic Foundation awarded the $349,990 grant, the largest of 17 grants it approved, to form the sports clubs. The foundation plans to spend $6 to $8 million of the Olympic surplus funds each year to support youth sports in Southern California.

The objective of the agency’s sports clubs, Valdivia said, is to “mix kids from various neighborhoods in the critical age group of 10 to 13, get them to play together, compete together . . . (and) give them that different role model.”

2,100 Youngsters

The clubs will be formed in Altadena, East Los Angeles, Pacoima, the Inglewood-Lennox-Hawthorne area, South-Central Los Angeles and, most probably, Northeast Los Angeles, he said. At least 2,100 youngsters are expected to participate in flag football, volleyball, basketball, handball, softball, track and swimming. The clubs will use facilities at playgrounds and recreation centers.


As the agency grant proposal explained, “in many neighborhoods in Los Angeles County, park and recreation centers have been taken over by local youth for gang meetings, hanging out, gambling, drug dealing and an occasional pick-up game. . . . Numerous parks have no staff, and those that do are understaffed. Often, existing staff are overworked and inadequately trained to reach out to under-served youth and address their problems. Entire neighborhoods simply have no supervised sports programs.”

With the grant, the agency will attempt to remedy this situation, hiring sports coordinators for the facilities and inviting youths from ages 10 to 16 from street gangs and high-risk neighborhoods, particularly those with public housing projects, to participate in the clubs.

“We want to know, we’ve been searching, for what we can do with these kids,” Massengale said. “So this grant represents to us a tool to use to reach those youngsters, redirect those youngsters. . . . We’re not just doing another sports program. It’s another opportunity for us, a tool to cut off gang activities. We think the parents and community groups will help us, that we’ll get lots of cooperation.”

How It Will Work

The sports coordinators, both male and female, will be given extensive training in both sports techniques and the psychology of coaching, and will be responsible for organizing the clubs and acting as trainer, counselor and “big brother or big sister” to the club members. They will establish a fall league in flag football and volleyball, a winter league in basketball and handball, a spring league in softball and exhibition events and a summer league in track and field and swimming. Each league will field at least two teams, each with at least 10 players, and some may overlap the seasons for purposes of practice, training and preliminary events.

Club members will attend weekly practice sessions, compete in games and travel to other neighborhoods to play, Valdivia said. While engaged in these activities, they will be given strong counseling that they ought to keep away from gang activity and drug use and, where appropriate, ought to re-enroll in school or get a job.

An additional hope is that the clubs will provide the nucleus for extending such organizations as the American Youth Soccer Organization and the Little League into the areas with the most gang problems. Talks are under way with the soccer group in particular to assume a bigger role in East Los Angeles.

Valdivia cautioned, however, as did Olympic foundation officials, that he is not sure how successful the program will be at either stemming or preventing gang membership.


‘Lost Too Many Kids’

“We know we’re going to have some failures,” he said. “I’ve lost too many kids in this work. Just when you think you’ve turned the corner, someone gets shot.”

Stanton Wheeler, the foundation president, said: “I’m not sure anyone’s a real authority on the problem, but the simple hope is that, if you can provide an exciting enough, creative enough alternative to gangs, you may just be able to get enough redirection so that they will continue in the new activities and not the old. It’s been the hope, and I would say the belief, of those involved in sports and recreation since the turn of the century that these outlets will divert people from delinquency, but it exists more in hope and ideology than as proven reality. We’re hoping to try something new, and we’re going to observe it carefully.”

The clubs are only one prevention program in which the agency is participating as it begins a new phase of its operations.

One ongoing prevention program involves painting murals, while at the same time covering up graffiti. This program also began with an Olympic grant, in 1984. The Olympic committee gave the agency a van and paint to produce murals before the Olympic Games. Now, under a prevention counselor, Daniel Martinez, murals are painted every few weeks, with neighborhood youth participating in all phases of the project.

“I black out the lines of the drawings, then they do the coloring in,” Martinez said.

Cost $200 to $300

A graffiti “guard” is also applied to each mural, allowing any graffiti to be washed off, although the murals have proved so popular that the youths themselves have been protecting them. The cost of materials for each mural runs between $200 and $300, and contributions are solicited from private funds. The group has 10 murals on the drawing boards.

One recently completed mural, at 11th and Grand View streets, west of downtown Los Angeles, in what was described by agency staff as a hard-core drug-peddling and gang area, features Our Lady of Guadalupe, along with the American and Mexican flags. Another, at Pico Boulevard and Fedora Street, contains a scene of a youth being jailed for committing a robbery.

The agency has just signed a $25,000 contract with the county to use youth teams to remove graffiti from lifeguard towers and restrooms at county beaches, Valdivia said. The funds will allow 7,000 square feet of graffiti to be removed and graffiti guard to be applied.

Another agency prevention activity is the 15-week career paths program, for use in the schools, which is directed at training youngsters in developing good citizenship and which, in frank and detailed terms, discusses what gang membership can mean. Youths are advised, for example, that an arrest record can cripple chances to get a job. And it is sponsoring a parents’ survival network in which parents are trained to watch for the first signs of gang activity--such as wearing red or blue shoelaces, or drastic changes in school, work or sleep habits--and what to do about them.

Small Private Grants

The programs are largely financed by small private grants that the agency has been able to obtain recently--$32,000 from the Ben Weingart Foundation, for example, and $29,000 from United Way.

Another program, a variation on the prevention theme, involves choosing 14- through 20-year-olds who have already been involved in gangs but are judged by agency staff to have leadership potential for a yearlong effort to get them to face their situation and consider changing their direction.

In partnership with the Breakthrough Foundation-Youth At Risk, which is funded by private corporations, the agency earlier this month sent 89 such young people to a camp near Julian in San Diego County for 10 days of activities ranging from physical competition to discussions about the choices they face. Twenty so-called facilitators and eight coaches went along.

This program, which is assisted by 450 volunteers, has follow-through meetings over a year, along with intensive efforts to get the young people either back into school or into jobs. The cost is high, about $3,000 for each person. The operation is in its second year, but this year there is much more follow-through scheduled after the camp session.

Yet these programs are not considered enough by some.

“Everyone says not enough is being done in prevention, not enough about the basic problems of employment, getting kids into activities,” said Lizarraga, who went along to the camp. “The dollars haven’t been there. . . . The effectiveness of prevention is hard to measure in the long run.”

And Valdivia said: “It’s not the cure-all. We’re just going to say it’s another piece. . . . It’s a success if there’s one less kid to create havoc.”