Helping Kids Stay on Course : Sports: A new anti-gang program introduces golf and its peaceful surroundings to youngsters from neighborhoods plagued by violence.


His spikes scratching the concrete drive outside the Montebello Country Club's pro shop, Eddie Fierro walked to the practice green. Youngsters who had never dreamed of being at a real golf course waited for him to teach them how to putt.

Fierro, the club pro, volunteers once a week to teach golf in a recently formed program that introduces the sport and its pleasant atmosphere to boys and girls, ages 9 to 17, from gang-plagued neighborhoods in Montebello and East Los Angeles.

Putters were distributed on a recent Wednesday afternoon to 10 youngsters who stood hesitantly on the hedge-bordered green as Fierro, 26, in gray slacks, yellow shirt and two-toned shoes, sank a medium-length putt.

"You don't have to hit it very hard," he told his students.

The program, part of the California Youth Authority's Gang Violence Reduction Project, provides an opportunity for the youngsters to be exposed to a sport other than basketball, football and boxing, and it also shows them a different lifestyle, according to project director Gil Garcia.

At first, the students swung too timidly or too hard, and the balls stopped well in front of the cup or rolled far past it. They giggled nervously, but kept trying.

"You have to put your mind to it," decided Patricia Guel, 14, who was stylishly attired in a checked jacket, black bicycle shorts, white socks and black shoes.

Patricia, who had come with her sister, Esther, and brother, Louie, said she has had violent confrontations with gang members in her East L.A. neighborhood.

Yet it was hard to imagine the dangers she might be subjected to away from the golf course as she bent over a shot with her bright red lips set so determinedly and her long hair blowing gently in the breeze.

Like the other students, Patricia's putts were becoming less errant the more she practiced.

"You've got to make it in or you can't go home," Fierro joked.

The prospect of staying longer in that picturesque setting was not unappetizing, and no one knew this better than Richard Rodriguez, the project's lead consultant. He had brought his stepson from their rough Geraghty Street area in East L.A.

A compact man with tattoos and a T-shirt that read "Chillin'," Rodriguez has worked for the project for 11 years.

"They get into it," he said, watching the young golfers. "Then they go back to their neighborhood and there's these gunfights and you gotta duck. But it's real nice and quiet here."

For an hour or so, before they had to return home, the course would be a haven for the youths.

"Sometimes we take them up to the mountains," said Rodriguez, referring to another project activity. "They all have cabins and they all have a good time. But when you leave and get near the neighborhood, you start feeling the tension again. Then it's back into reality, back into the jungle."

Fierro, who only a decade ago was growing up in East L.A., understands these two different worlds.

"On the driving range you can see the look on the faces of the older kids who are in gangs," the club pro said. "They're like little kids again. You can see the tension is down, they don't have to protect their territory."

To Rodriguez, the 65-year-old, 18-hole public course near the Pomona Freeway seemed like a foreign paradise.

"I'm 43, and I've never held no golf club other than at miniature golf," he said. "When we told the kids that this would be real golf, they laughed. It surprised them. No one was used to golf. They couldn't see themselves hanging out here. It was the farthest thing from their mind. Most were playing handball in the park. It's something real now."

Rodriguez and other consultants selected youngsters with good attitudes who had shown an interest in sports.

Rodriguez watched Fierro, who was placing a gloved hand on the close-cropped grass as a target for the young putters.

"I can't believe he came from one of the neighborhoods," Rodriguez said. "He looks sharp, clean-cut. I thought he came from a family with money."

Fierro is the first golf pro Rodriguez had ever met, although he used to watch Lee Trevino on television. "We told the kids about him . . . Super Mex," Rodriguez said. "And I look at TV now and there's Nancy Lopez.

"But there's not a lot of Mexicans playing golf. They never really thought of it. It takes money to even think of playing. Upstairs here, they have like a restaurant, and a soda with a cherry costs $3!"

For now, the youngsters in this program don't have to worry about the high cost of golf. The Ladies Professional Golf Assn., which is involved in parks and recreation programs, referred project director Garcia to a wholesaler, from which he was able to purchase bags, clubs and balls.

Fierro's strict upbringing insulated him from gangs. His father, a caddy, often took him to driving ranges.

"I was one of the lucky ones," said the club pro, who was on the golf team at Schurr High School in Montebello and then at Rio Hondo College in Whittier. "Growing up in this area, there's really nothing to do but get into trouble."

The designers of the program hope that Fierro, who lives near the Montebello course, becomes a role model for the youngsters.

"When I first started working with these youths, they didn't respond to me until I told them I was from East Los Angeles," Fierro said. "They now relate to me more and are more interested in learning. We're hoping to get some who like the game enough to take it up. Who knows, maybe someday one of them will turn professional too."

Eventually, Fierro said the 18 youngsters in the program will be sent out to play in foursomes with adults. "It can open a lot of doors for them," he said. "It has for me."

As he putted an orange ball, slender Sal Perez, 14, Rodriguez's grandson, said of golf, "I thought it was boring when I saw it on TV. But it's challenging."

He had a faint mustache and his pierced ears held earrings that glinted in the sun.

Between golf shots, Sal talked about his neighborhood: "Too much shooting over there. Can't be out at night. When it gets dark, they shoot. We go out in day, but they shoot people in the day, too."

After school, Sal likes to dance at his home in City Terrace, a hilly East L.A. section of decaying pastel homes, thick weeds, dirt yards, graffiti, American flags, dilapidated cars and trucks, crowing roosters, squawking chickens and large barking dogs.

A mural on the side of one of the barred houses depicts the rifle-toting Mexican revolutionary Zapata, who rebelled against poverty and political oppression. Zapata's words are written on the house: "It is better to die on my feet than to continue living on my knees."

"I'd rather dance than fight," Sal said as he walked in his neighborhood a few days after the visit to the golf course. He said his goal is to be a mechanic, preferably working on Porsches and Volkswagens.

As the lesson proceeded on that recent Wednesday afternoon, Fierro told his students, "Watch how the hill breaks."

Sal, Patricia and the others, as their shadows lengthened, finally began to get the hang of it. Balls started to rattle into cups. It was a pleasant sound, and it mixed with the sounds of the birds.

Before being driven back to their neighborhoods, the youngsters lingered a while in this place they had never expected to be, trying to sink more putts.

They were happy and, like so many would-be golfers before them, hooked.

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