Testimony : ONE PERSON'S STORY ABOUT EDUCATING CHILDREN : 'How Can You Turn Down Such a Need?'

As Told to ROBERT SCHEER

When Gwen Bolden, a former Los Angeles County teacher of the year, retired, she decided to develop an after-school program to deal with children in crime-ridden areas of the city. The mother of three grown children, she is executive director of the Gwen Bolden Foundation.

I have done an after-school tutorial program for almost 14 years. We are now in three elementary schools where the kids were not reading and computing well.

The parents and the kids want tutorial programs. Last Friday, I had 60 kids from an elementary school and I was just besieged with requests, "Please help me, I need to read better, I need to compute better, I don't know my multiplication facts." But funds are limited.

I got on the phone and called different universities and colleges that have programs and hopefully we'll get some young volunteers. When the kids are asking for help, how can you turn down such a need?

These are children that want to learn. The ages range from 6 to 12. Each child had a personal problem. One child said she needed help with division, another said that they were working on fractions.

We are with a city program and our funding started out at $37,000 and it's been cut to $20,000. We can only employ two people, so what we've been doing is giving small stipends to people who can tutor a couple of hours a day.

The principal of Menlo sent home applications offering an after-school tutorial program, because he wanted to see what interest there was. We got such a response, we had to use the cafeteria. So it's just not true what they say about the kids in our community, that they don't want to learn, they don't have the interest, and all they want to do is gang-bang.

A long time ago, L.A. public schools had tutorial programs, we had Teen Post, we had a lot of things set up. There were Teen Posts all over the city, and youngsters used to go there after school. Teen Post was a building where there were adults who would help children with their homework, who provided some guidance. They mostly focused on recreational activities. They went on field trips and did the kinds of things that kept a youngster busy, active and productive. I'm unsure of when this program was cut, but I know of only two Teen Posts today.

When something works, it seems like the powers that be cut it out, like it's not meant to work. Teen Post is a perfect example of that. That worked for the majority of youngsters who participated in it. They also gave supervised dances, where youngsters could go and let off some steam. Now, most teachers leave at 3 o'clock. There might be that concern for their safety.

I am 67 and was one of the first black women commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1951. I was in the Navy for 5 1/2 years and left at the rank of lieutenant junior grade. I have lived through a lot of things since then, and I guess I'm as fearful as the next person, but I don't let fear stop me from doing what I believe I have to do.

I was born in Bermuda, but I came to the States when I was 6. I graduated from Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, which is the oldest black university in this country. My father was a doctor, he just died recently. He and my mother both graduated from Wilberforce.

The kids today don't have role models as close by. The grandmothers are in Texas or Alabama. But they certainly have supportive parents, because they send them to school every day and to the tutorial program. The fact that they are on hand to bring them and pick them up shows a lot of concern.

Our program was originally housed in a firehouse and sponsored by the Stentorians, a black firemen's association. We don't run the program out of the firehouse any more because the building isn't earthquake-proof. We moved (with the firefighters) to Degnan Boulevard. We've been together for 14 years. We're like a family. Some of the older firefighters acted as Big Brothers and their advice was very effective, because someone had helped them. So my message is community empowerment.

Grass-roots support is needed because the schools' budget has been cut. I'm not saying that some of the schools do not provide tutoring, but most of the schools that I have spoken with would love to have a tutorial program and have invited grass-roots organizations like ours to come in and conduct a program.

Many of the people who work in these programs have had the best of lives to the worst of lives, and they're willing to share their experiences and assist in whatever way they can. They've come back to their communities to do this.

As a teacher in the L.A. school system, I used to take youngsters home with me on the weekends and I would have them take off the earring or the bandanna or whatever the gang insignia was. They could not bring that. We'd go to the beach, and they would be free. We'd swim, have hot chocolate, whatever. On Monday, when I had to teach, the attitude had changed. Once you've been in someone's home, slept in their bedroom, eaten their food, you don't tend to be hostile toward them anymore, especially if you're a kid.

A group of teachers found out that we could work with these kids and have them stop wearing these insignia and just pull them away from the gangs. We just pulled them away quietly. Which is why my most important project is to get a school going where kids can get away. We are trying to raise money to get construction going on 10 acres in Pearblossom, Calif., that the Northrop Corp. helped us buy with a grant 10 years ago.

We have planted 20 trees there, each for a victim of urban violence. We'd like to build group homes where the kids could live for six to 12 months while attending a computer entrepreneurial training center. It's important for them to get away. My concept is that the teachers work along with the kids in doing chores and live on the premises. Then they could come back with new skills and a new positive attitude.

I meet some of my young people who are adults now that say, " I remember your class and I remember what you taught me," and that's very rewarding.

Unfortunately, the negative things are outweighing the productive things in the community and people use that as an excuse for doing nothing.

TO GET INVOLVED: Call the Gwen Bolden Foundation at ( 213 ) 293 - 6581.

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