Offenders Serve Others While Serving Time : Plan Is Prison Alternative

<i> Barnes is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

As 15-year-old Michael Firebauch cruises happily through Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills looking for beds to make and flashing his ingenuous, braces-clad smile at patients and nurses, nobody has any inkling that the 5-foot-tall orderly is a model prisoner.

Although it’s hard to picture the elfish Firebauch in an act of violence, he recently spent 17 days locked up at Juvenile Hall for hitting a teacher. To finish his sentence, he accepted 50 hours of community-service work at the hospital under the Court Referred Volunteer Program.

After three years in the program, Holy Cross has had a successful rehabilitation rate of about 90%, said Elvia Gomez of the Volunteer Center of San Fernando Valley, which places the volunteers. Holy Cross is one of half a dozen hospitals in the Valley participating in the program, which provides an alternative to prison sentences and fines for 40 people.

Seized Opportunity to Serve

“My first day at Juvenile Hall, I was very scared,” Firebauch said. “Then it got boring. . . . It was jail.”

So Firebauch pounced on the chance to serve his time in a more active, constructive way. And, after being on house probation, in which an officer would call or drive by his home to make sure he was there, Firebauch began working at Holy Cross. Every Monday through Friday, after he leaves Porter Junior High School in Granada Hills, Firebauch puts in two hours at the hospital.

He sometimes does general housekeeping or works in the business offices, but, he said, “It’s mostly helping when people need a hand.”

Teaching Responsibility

“My mom was pretty upset when I first started working at the hospital, but when I told her what it was like here, she said, ‘It’s good for you,’ ” Firebauch said. “It’s teaching me to keep my responsibilities.”

Firebauch answers to Betty Stephenson, the hospital’s director of housekeeping. She is a blond, dimple-cheeked powerhouse whom he often greets with a rib-crushing hug and “hello, friend.”

“Michael does any job I give him,” Stephenson said, “no matter what it is. He’s as sweet as honey, and at no time has he ever lost his temper. That kid is all good. I really believe that. He even asked me if he could keep coming here after his time is up.”

Like all court referrals at the hospital, Firebauch was hired by Sister Ceciliana Honer, director of volunteers.

“Michael is our youngest,” Honer said, but the volunteers range all the way up to 80. “We have a 70-year-old who got in trouble for driving under the influence. That’s why most of them are here.”

Indeed, just minutes later, a cherubic teen-age girl popped into Honer’s office to check in for the day. She was there to make amends for what she said was her first and last conviction for driving under the influence.

Conviction Is Confidential

“Whenever someone is referred to me,” Honer said, “I always ask what the offense was, and, when that person gets here, they know that I know what they’ve done and that I’m free to discuss it with them. That’s the beginning of an open relationship between the two of us.”

Honer stressed that she and the volunteers’ immediate supervisors are the only hospital personnel who know that the volunteer is serving a sentence, unless that person chooses to tell. “Their identification badges are exactly the same as any other volunteer, and they are treated with equal respect,” she said.

Nevertheless, when Scott Harris, 22, showed up to serve his 350 hours, he felt conspicuous. He had already completed part of his sentence, a one-year jail term, for three felonies. He had rampaged through a courthouse over a misunderstanding and broke a glass door, blinding an 11-year-old girl in one eye. Deputy Dist. Atty. Deborah Elliot had branded him “a walking time bomb.”

“I was sure that everybody at the hospital knew about me,” Harris said. “I thought they were looking around corners at me, saying, ‘That’s the guy!’ But I guess it was all in my mind. And, even if it wasn’t, once people met me, they could see I wasn’t violent.”

Last Chance

Because of the nature of his offense, most hospitals didn’t want Harris on their volunteer staffs. But, Honer said, “I never once felt he was a bad risk. He was honest and open, with an obvious willingness to do the work.”

On probation until 1990, Harris said he feels quite fortunate that Honer gave him a break. “Holy Cross was my last chance to do referral work, and if I hadn’t gotten on here I probably would have gone back to jail and ended up one of the worst members of society,” he said.

“In jail, I had to act crazy just to get by. Other prisoners told me if I don’t kill the people who put me in there I’m not a man. So, when I got out, I was thinking in terms of vengeance, but subconsciously I didn’t want to do that because I knew I’d get in more trouble. Then I ended up here and I realized that, instead of getting even, I preferred to show people that I can overcome anything they throw my way and turn it into something good.”

Harris completed his community service hours in December and was hired as a full-time hospital employee. As the resident trouble shooter-handyman, he wears a 25-pound tool belt complete with beeper, thermometer and a gigantic set of keys that he proudly offers for inspection. They were issued to him, he said, by Bob Van Mourik, manager of the plant and maintenance department, and are a sign of trust.

Recovered Self-Esteem

“When they gave me these, I knew my boss was really going to be on my side,” Harris said. “I can get in almost anyplace here.”

He talked with the confidence of a man who has finally had enough of kicking himself and isn’t shy about shoring up his once-battered self-esteem. He boasted of his renovation of the hospital’s cooling towers, which, he says, he did in a fraction of the time it normally takes. And he enjoys teaching patients how to operate hospital beds, especially when he can use the Spanish that he learned in jail.

“It’s the only positive thing that came out of that whole mess,” he said.

Stephenson said, “I wish the courts would get their act together and send more people here where they can do some good instead of to jail.”

But volunteer Jeanetta Bryan said she knows that not all volunteer programs encourage productivity and progress. Serving 500 hours plus two years’ probation for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer, Bryan, 25, said: “I was originally placed at a park where I was supposed to answer telephones, but the phone only rang two or three times a day, so I quit.”

New Interest in Learning

Honer said she realized Bryan was unusual the first time they met in her office. “She told me she’d be willing to do anything if I would just put her somewhere where she could better herself,” she said. Now a file clerk, Bryan is a full-time employee at Holy Cross. Her immediate plans are to remain at the hospital for a while, but eventually she wants to go back to school to study computer programming. “Before, I never cared about learning,” she said, “but now it’s really important to me.”

Her job has also given Bryan a lesson in humanity. Sick of being prejudged, she expected more of the same at Holy Cross. “But I was surprised that people didn’t look down on me for what I had done,” she said. “Sister Ceciliana is proud of me, and that feels great.”

Honer said, “It makes me feel good to think I’ve helped open new channels for some of these people. They’ve all had some kind of conversion because they’ve been given a chance.

“I think the courts are going to go more toward this kind of rehabilitation, and there would be more court referrals if the judges were more open to it.”

She pointed out that it’s not unusual for court-referred volunteers to be resentful when they enter the program. But, with a little kindness, she said, “you gradually see that melt down.” The only volunteers she refuses to keep, she said, are those who are not punctual or don’t show up for weeks at a time.

“But I haven’t met one yet that I didn’t feel warm toward,” she said. “I really love them all.”