At first, it looked more like a beach trip or a birthday caravan as the 12 youths dressed in shorts and T-shirts squeezed out of two crowded cars in Lawndale Tuesday.
But as the other vehicles arrived with the heavy-duty sandblaster, brushes and buckets of paint, it became quite clear that this was no party.
The youngsters were there as part of a program called Junior Graffiti Busters and had given up a perfect beach day to paint over graffiti-scarred walls and doors in the Lawndale and Lennox areas.
Jason Schlagel, 14, helped paint two walls outside a home in Lennox, where another dozen youths joined the original group.
“The first one was kind of hard because it was my first time using a long roller-brush,” said Schlagel, a Lawndale resident. “I’m glad I got into this because it’s making the community look better and we’re showing good stuff to the kids, making them learn not to write on walls and not to join gangs. I think it’s worth it.”
Junior Graffiti Busters is the brainchild of Marianne Diaz-Parton and her 14-year-old daughter, Sophia. Diaz-Parton, who is a coastal region manager for Community Youth Gang Services, said the program targets children who are at high risk for joining neighborhood gangs.
In March, the Junior Graffiti Busters held their first meeting and have since gained the support of local officials.
“I think that if we can get some of these kids cooperating to try to cancel some of the graffiti--that maybe they were instrumental in putting down in former days--it’s a tremendous idea,” said Lawndale Mayor Harold Hofmann. “I think it’s working well for us.” The program now boasts about 65 participants, including some former gang members, said Gina Orozco, 24, the group’s director.
“Three of them got ‘jumped out’ (fought their way out of gangs) just to be in Graffiti Busters,” she said.
The group’s headquarters is a small office across the street from Lawndale City Hall. Its walls are covered with maps detailing the names of gangs and their boundaries in Lawndale and other areas. Recently, the anti-graffiti program was expanded to Lennox and Wilmington, areas that will test its viability because they have more gangs.
p The success of the program for teen-agers has spawned the Pee Wee Graffiti Busters for children from 8 to 11. Orozco said the group, which started four weeks ago, now has about 15 members. Law enforcement officials are also supportive of the anti-graffiti program.
“It’s kind of a bold thing for them to do,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Stacy Lee of the Lennox Sheriff’s Crime Prevention Unit. Lee said she occasionally keeps an eye on the group while they paint to prevent encounters with local gangs. No one challenged the group Tuesday.
"(The gangs) were kind of standing on the edge of things with their mouths open surprised that anyone would come and paint over their stuff.”
Graffiti buster Graciela Viveros, 13, said her 19- and 20-year-old brothers belong to gangs.
“I just don’t like to hang around with them and I want to show my mom there are other things I can do in life,” she said.
Her brothers support her involvement in the group.
“They don’t want me to do the same thing they’re doing,” she said.