Today's Agenda

The life of a runaway might look desirable to a teen-ager locked in daily, screaming battles with parents over his or her friends, clothes, music, behavior. But from the other end, things look different. "The first three days, you say, 'Yeah, I'm glad I left,' " says Marlon, 15, in Platform. But then (you) don't have a place to go and you wish you could go back home." Girls who have run away talk about how, even if they avoid outright prostitution, they often end up sleeping with men in exchange for shelter. "My advice to anyone considering running away is not to do it," says Angie, 17. She, like Marlon, lived at Angel's Flight, a shelter for runaways. "Living on the streets is probably one of the scariest things you'd ever go through," she says.

Granted, there are times when a teen is running from unbearable abuse or a parent far gone in drugs or alcohol. But more often the break is over less clear-cut issues. Runaways talk about how they wish they could go back and do it over. But what, for their part, could parents do?

"Teens have this feeling of invulnerability and omnipotence that comes with youth, and they have no idea what it's like on the streets," advises Barbara Cadow, a psychologist specializing in adolescents at the USC Department of Clinical Psychology. "Give kids the benefit of the doubt and try to look at what the parent is contributing to the fight. If they're really worried about a runaway situation, parents should consider counseling, but for the whole family. Making the child go alone can exacerbate the situation because the kid feels completely blamed."

When President Clinton's ambitious "Summer of Service" youth jobs program was shot down by a filibuster in the Senate, most of the groups who would have used the money to fund their planned summer programs sighed, shrugged and walked away. Not Santa Monica College, the subject of Making a Difference.

The community college dug into a bequest to the school and paired 100 students in need of jobs with local organizations.

What made this project so compelling? "We thought President Clinton had a great idea," says Santa Monica College President Richard Moore. "So far it looks like a stunning success, with highly motivated students taking part. These are youngsters taking buses with two or three transfers, just to get here and go to school.

"It's exactly what we think David Simon (who left this bequest to the college) would have wanted," says Moore. "He didn't have a good start in life, and he wanted to give a boost to kids like him. "Sometimes kids need a little spotlight behind them, so their families will support their staying in school. It's particularly hard on young immigrant women, because there's no family tradition that it's valuable for girls to get educated. This helps."

It's been hard in the past couple of years to find the upside of life. But beneath the tarnish, Southern California's underlying strengths--economic, social, climatic--remain, and that's the subject of today's Platform.

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