House-Painting Helps Them, Neighborhood : Teens Brush Up on Improvements

Times Staff Writer

Residents in Inglewood's Centinela Heights neighborhood are no longer alarmed when they see a gang of teen-agers applying paint to a house. In fact, they are now signing up for the privilege of having it done to their homes.

Teen-agers are working to spruce up the residential neighborhood next to the Hyde Park area of Los Angeles in the experimental program designed to steer young people away from the lure of the streets. By painting the houses of low-income residents and senior citizens, organizers say, the young participants are learning a marketable craft, taking in some spending money and even polishing the tarnished reputations that they carry among those a generation or two older.

'Right Direction'

Mixing, priming and painting techniques are just the beginning, said coordinator Mercedes Tudy of Inglewood Neighborhood Housing Services Inc. "It's more than just an employment program," she said. "We try to work with the whole person. I think a lot of the kids have the right ingredients. We try to point them in the right direction."

The job program concept originated in a neighborhood group in Salt Lake City, where disadvantaged young people were organized several years ago to improve their community. The Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., a national group that funds community revitalization projects, chose Inglewood last year for a similar job program that will serve as a model for tough urban environments.

"In Salt Lake City, the problem kids were involved in school truancy, joy riding, drinking and maybe some petty theft," said Cris Mojica-Gomez, the Southern California manager for Neighborhood Reinvestment. "In a place like Inglewood you're dealing with crack dealing and gangs. The kids have a harder edge to them."

In the Inglewood program, the dozen participants are required to attend counseling sessions to plan their futures. They learn to speak in public and maintain a neat appearance. They must master such job hunting basics as resumes and applications, and such abstractions as responsibility and dedication.

'Now I Have Goals'

"When I started, I was lost, just hanging around," said Jose Garcia, a shy 18-year-old who became the program's first graduate this week. "Now I have goals. I just want to do enough so people will say, 'Jose is something.' "

Garcia, who also graduated from Inglewood High School last month, has accepted a carpenter's apprentice position with an Anaheim construction firm. His goals include attending trade school, learning more English, and earning enough money to help out his mother and four sisters.

Once he makes it, Garcia envisions himself helping others to straighten out their lives. "I want to teach other people that life is something, not just hanging around."

Another painter, Jermaine Cooley, 18, said after a painting session this week that he isn't the same person he was two months ago when he first signed up for the program.

"My friends see a change in me," said Cooley, a graduate of the Inglewood Community Day Center, an alternative high school. "It's making me see that I can do more than just hang out on the streets. It's helping me to get my responsibilities together. Right now I'd be at home doing nothing with the buddies."

Participants acknowledge that painting a house is not for everyone. Arriving at work on time is a requirement. Teamwork is key. Many of those who sign up later drop out and drift away.

"I can tell people that this is a good program," Cooley said, "but some people can't hang with it."

Victor Peres, the on-site coordinator, said he took a hefty pay cut from his regular construction work to train the teen-agers. He considers the work a repayment to those who helped him turn his life around when he was growing up.

"I was young once too," Peres said, showing the scar from a bullet wound he received in the abdomen during his wilder days. "I can relate to them. . . . I'm trying to change the world for them a little bit. That's all we can do."

Iola Reeser, a Wexham Way resident who says she hasn't always spoken in glowing terms about today's young people, was beaming as she showed off her newly painted bright yellow home last week.

She gave the teen-agers the ultimate compliment: "These kids did a better job than the professional painters who did it the first time."

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