The contrast is striking.
Members of the Saddleback Kiwanis Club, a group of well-off, educated retirees from Leisure World in Laguna Hills, laughing, joking and sharing experiences with teen-age boys serving court-ordered time at a probationary center.
For the past 20 years, the Leisure World-based group has sponsored Service Gents, a club designed to teach the teen-agers housed at the Joplin Youth Center such skills as gaining self-confidence, giving a speech, running a meeting and handling a job interview.
“We do everything to encourage them to have self-confidence. That’s what they lack,” said Kiwanis Club member John Stransky, head of the program for the past 9 years.
Every Wednesday evening, Stransky and three or four other Kiwanis Club members join eight to 12 youths, ages 14 to 17, in a Service Gents meeting at the center, which is tucked away in Trabuco Canyon and operated by the Orange County Probation Office. Every Saddleback Kiwanian is required to attend at least one such meeting.
Norman Freestone, a Kiwanian who attends Service Gents meetings about once every 3 months, said: “I come because I want to be helpful. Kiwanis is organized to serve its community, and this group is one of our major projects. They’re good boys in trouble.”
Roland Stewart, a regular at Service Gents meetings, added: “I like dealing with the boys, and this gives me a good opportunity to see the younger people. They’re neat kids, and it’s fun to talk to them.”
At each gathering, Kiwanians watch as the elected teen-age president of Service Gents leads the meeting by introducing that week’s speakers and program.
Each week, four or five teen-agers get an opportunity to practice public speaking by giving short talks on topics of their choice. The Kiwanis members in attendance critique each speech, offering helpful comments on eye contact, poise and preparation.
Said one of the Joplin teen-agers, whose names cannot be used because of their age: “You can learn public speaking so you can overcome nervousness. Doing speeches also helps you learn how to do research.”
Stewart emphasized the value of these public-speaking exercises: “You watch them progress. One of the boys will get up and he’ll do a lousy job with his speech. Then you come up 6 weeks later and he does a good job, and then 6 weeks later, he’s a pro. It’s just real heartwarming to see how John (Stransky) brings these kids along.”
“Most of these kids have lived by their wits,” Joplin director Al Lindeman said of the boys, who are serving an average of 100 days each at the center, primarily for gang-related crimes or crimes against property.
“They have not had the resources we think of the typical American kid having, with his strong family support system,” Lindeman said. “Most of them have not had good experiences in schools. When they come here, they usually have developed some very thick callouses, and they’re used to being tough. We create an environment here where they can relax and just be teen-age kids.”
A key part of the weekly program is the talk presented by a Kiwanian. Sometimes, the talk will be practical, such as giving tips on how to speak in public or how to build self-confidence. Club members have also spoken about such hobbies as calligraphy, clarinets and telescopes.
The boys appear to sincerely appreciate the Kiwanians’ efforts.
“I like to go to Service Gents and listen to the men talk about their hobbies,” one Joplin boy said. “We appreciate that and enjoy listening to them talk.”
Added another: “I really enjoy Service Gents because I enjoy learning things like what things are expected from you on a job interview. They (the Kiwanians) teach the importance of helping out other people.”
The Kiwanis members have not only taught the boys how to help themselves but also how to help others. Service Gents raises $600 to $800 for local charities at its annual car wash held in May at Geneva Presbyterian Church on El Toro Road in Laguna Hills. Proceeds are divided among such charities as the Orangewood Children’s Foundation for abused and abandoned youngsters, New York’s Covenant House for runaways and the South Coast Youth Shelter in Laguna Beach.
Extra money earned last year helped to purchase radios for the Joplin Youth Center, and in previous years, extra car-wash monies have gone to buy a refrigerator, curtains for the dorm windows and a gas-operated barbecue for the youth center.
Another Service Gents project is the preparation of food baskets for needy south Orange County families at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And the Kiwanis Foundation has bought the Service Gents a router plane so that the youths can make Christmas toys for Childrens Hospital of Orange County.
Close interaction between the Joplin teen-agers and the Kiwanis Club members is the backbone of the Service Gents organization.
In addition to their weekly Wednesday night meetings, the boys attend a Kiwanis Club lunch meeting at Leisure World one Monday a month. Service Gents teen-agers also help out at the Kiwanis Club’s annual pancake breakfast, which is held in May at Leisure World.
About half of the 60 boys at Joplin are eligible to participate in Service Gents, based on citizenship levels and a daily grading system. The club can accommodate up to 14 teen-agers, and membership usually ranges between eight and 12 boys.
“It’s a commitment,” Lindeman said. “It’s like a job. You don’t just quit. You give notice. You say why, because we’re trying to teach that concept. It’s popular enough so that they (the boys) will give up an evening of free time to go to it. Instead of playing Ping-Pong or pool or football, they come to this meeting and give a speech.”
Explaining why he and other teen-agers would sacrifice their free time to become involved in Service Gents, the club’s president said: “They (the Kiwanis members) give us ideas so we can see the talents we have. They are very helpful because they try to encourage us to follow any goals we might have.”
Added Freestone: “They (the boys) talk about setting goals, and if you can keep them motivated to arrive at something close to that, you feel like you’ve done an excellent job.”