Home Teaches Wayward Youths to Be Responsible
Andy stared angrily at his peers, certain that they would vote to send him to Juvenile Hall because he had broken a house rule about cursing.
“If you guys want to send me down, send me down,” he said defiantly to the group of 15 teen-agers sitting with him in the circle. “I don’t care.”
The young men were in the midst of a 90-minute rap session, a daily exercise in self-government at the Boys Republic Home in an upscale neighborhood of Silver Lake. The troubled youths have been sent to the home by the courts and the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services.
Andy’s peers, however, quickly calmed his fears of being “sent down to the hall.” Like him, veterans of gang wars and drug addiction, they listened as he began to talk about his problems at home, and they watched as his anger and defiance turned to tears.
“You got to let it out,” said David, 18. “If you need to cry, hey, you know you’ve always got this shoulder right here.”
Founded in 1965 on what was once the grounds of a Japanese orphanage, the home is one of three facilities operated by the Chino-based Boys Republic. Acting as a self-governing body, the 20 youths at the home can recommend a trip downtown to Juvenile Hall for their misbehaving peers and also vote to approve--or disapprove--a resident’s final “emancipation” into the outside world.
“When you’re dealing with anti-social behavior, the only thing that can change it is peer pressure,” said Gordon Lopez, 35, director of the home for the last six years.
“We develop a culture here based on peer concern and peer care,” Lopez said. “The kids come here mean, angry and aggressive. But by the time the leave, they’re ready to do good work.”
Not all the youths who come to the home succeed, however. Many run away or are sent to Juvenile Hall for fighting at the home or at school. “Statistically, they say we succeed with 50%,” Lopez said. “But as far as I’m concerned, we succeed with every boy that comes in this program.”
School officials and members of the surrounding community who have had contact with the home’s residents say its democratic methods apparently work well for many young men.
“These kids have been used to failure, and sometimes it’s hard to push them out of that cycle,” said Peg Owens, a counselor at Marshall High School, where about 10 of the youths take classes. “It’s nice to be able to see them make some progress--for the first time in their lives.”
Another 10 youths study graphic arts, brick masonry, electronics and other trades at the East Los Angeles Occupational Center.
Fabian McLeish, who will replace Lopez as director of the home this month, said the young men who come to the Silver Lake facility are more stable and mature than many who have had run-ins with the law. Some are graduates of the Boys Republic in Chino, where 150 young men tend crops and livestock on a 211-acre farm.
The Silver Lake home emphasizes “real world” experiences such as holding down a job at a local store or a fast-food restaurant, and maintaining good relations with neighbors. “We need the community; the community doesn’t need us,” McLeish told the youths during the rap session. “That’s why it’s important for us to always be on our best behavior.”
Among the many beneficiaries of the young men’s community work are the nuns of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who live in a 22-room Mediterranean-style mansion on Micheltorena Street. Sister Marina said the youths have helped the nuns unload furniture, take trash to the dump and have performed countless other tasks for more than 20 years. “It doesn’t matter when I ask them, they have never said no,” she said. “They’ve been very respectful and very well-behaved.”
At the home, the youths learn to budget their money, do their laundry and fill out job applications--skills that will eventually allow them either to be reunited with their families or to live on their own.
“If you really need to get your stuff together, this is the place to be,” said Tom, 17, from Whittier.
Tom, whose real name was withheld at the request of the Boys Republic, said he had arrived at the home after being arrested for stealing to support a drug habit. “It’s a long road,” he said. “I was making $300 a day stealing, but I don’t have nothing to show for it but scars.”
After coming to Boys Republic, Tom has done well in his studies and has a “B” average. “I write poems, and one of my teachers says I’m a poet,” he said. To prove his point, he produced a spiral notebook and read several of his verses, including a poem about street life adapted from the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
At the home, Tom and the other youths live in a setting similar to a college dormitory. After finishing their household chores, they lift weights in a well-furnished exercise room or study in a small library complete with a full set of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.Q Outside, a wide lawn, a basketball court and a small, cabin-like home behind the main residence give the Boys Republic the look of a country retreat.
In fact, very different children lived on the property before it became a home for wayward youths. From 1915 to World War II, the property was the site of the Japanese Children’s Home, said Grace Kusumoto, 73, whose father operated it. The orphanage was closed after Pearl Harbor and its 50 children shipped off to an internment camp, she said.
The old orphanage was demolished and the
property sold to the Boys Republic in 1965. Kusumoto moved into an adjacent home and has been the youths’ unofficial grandmother ever since.
This year, Kusumoto hand-sewed Christmas stockings for the youths, which she and other members of the Silver Lake Auxiliary stuffed with apples, wallets and $5 bills. “Christmas is a special time for the boys,” Kusumoto said. “We try to make it homelike for them.”
Kusumoto joined the youths Friday in preparing for the home’s annual Christmas dinner, when the youths’ families and friends are invited to visit. For many of the young men, it was a time to reflect on the past and to plan for the future.
“What I’ve learned from here is to stay with one thing and go with it, and to accept things the way they are,” said Tony, 17.
When he graduates from Boys Republic, Tony said, he plans to find a “decent job” and look for an apartment in Glendale with his close friend, Donald, 18, also a resident of the home. Together, they plan to take advantage of the home’s policy of giving first and last months’ rent to graduates as a head start in their life on the outside.
Director Lopez is also leaving the home this month to accept a new position in Texas. He came to the job after a stint in the Peace Corps and had planned to work at the home only temporarily while he studied Arabic at UCLA.
“The first year that I worked here, every day that I came in here I thought would be my last,” he said. “The kids were blatant. They would get up in your face and say, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ ”
Lopez stayed five more years, however, and eventually learned to appreciate the subtle rewards of working with troubled youths.
“Punk rockers, who shaved their heads and had cigarette burns on their arms and were wearing combat boots, will come back three or four years later with their kids and their wives. They’ll have an apartment some place and they’ll be making it,” he said. “When that happens, there’s nothing in the world that can match it.”
David, a quiet but intense 18-year-old who will graduate from Boys Republic next year, said he hopes to escape from the gang life that claimed the life of his cousin. “I think far ahead about what I want to do, and I have a lot of faith in myself,” he said as the rap session ended and the youths began preparing for dinner. “It’s because of all these guys around me.”