COVER STORY : Founder Struggles to Keep Movie Program Rolling

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those with connections, declares Dorothy Thompson, get the jobs. Organizations with connections get grants.

And while she has become a connection for the trainees who have gone on to establish careers as production assistants, she worries that she can't get the funding needed for the survival of Streetlights, the program she started two years ago that trains troubled young people for entry-level jobs in the entertainment industry.

Since starting the program, Thompson, 43, sent three grant proposals to RLA, formerly Rebuild L.A. She said she hasn't heard from them. (RLA, said spokeswoman Val Bunting, tries to respond to each proposal. But she also noted that thousands of applications were received after the riots, more than the agency could handle.)

Thompson also has called state legislators, who say they're interested in helping. "But I end up talking to their staffers, and they keep putting me off," she said.

For now, she keeps Streetlights afloat with her own will, help from a few benefactors and her good credit.

"She does all the work," said Mary Kay Powell, president of RASTAR Productions. "She trains them, follows through, places them. She is a one-woman industry."

Thompson left a job in advertising 12 years ago to start a career in the production of commercials. At 34, she began as a production assistant and ultimately became a producer.

Now, she spends most of her time running Streetlights, which has an annual budget of about $20,000 a year. "I take a job producing commercials when I'm desperate," she said.

Working with five students at a time, Thompson tells her trainees what is expected of production assistants. Classes are held in an office donated by Hollywood Center Studios. The students spend 12 hours on a set. They watch and later assist on a job without pay. After a trainee is hired, she keeps in touch with the employer to monitor the student's progress.

Streetlights has a four-month waiting list. Thompson wants to expand and help more people get jobs in the business.

But Thompson said she gets frustrated by lip service, be it from legislators or from the industry. There's also the wariness some employers have about hiring someone with a troubled past.

A few failed. One trainee, she says, "just went back on crack. It broke my heart."

But the successes outnumber the failures.

Thompson and Streetlights, said Mortez Bradley, changed his life. "I feel there are so many people like Eddie Murphy and Oprah Winfrey who have made it and who should be doing something like what Dorothy is doing," he said.

Still, Thompson sometimes thinks Streetlights will die if she doesn't find enough money to sustain the program.

"Then I think, no, I won't give up." Streetlights, she said, has made a difference for many young men and women whose futures looked dim.

"They're getting off welfare, they're working." she said.

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