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Blazing New Trails : A Day in the Mountains Is No Picnic for the City Kids of CREW

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Bumpin’ through!” shouts John Verstraeten, balancing a bundle of branches and other earthly debris as he navigates the dusty path through shoulder-high chaparral.

Below lies a sweeping, if slightly hazy, vista of Ojai Valley. The mountains above are the Topa Topas.

We’re in Los Padres National Forest with a group of city kids. But this is no picnic. Their gray T-shirts identify them as the CREW. They’re here to work.

With misgivings, I hit the trail, close behind the CREW’s assistant project director, Lanny Kaufer, who had to go and mention rattlesnakes.

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I see a snoozing snake under every rock. Every crackling twig is a rattle. Kaufer is reassuring, sort of: Despite numerous snake sightings, the CREW has yet to have “a dangerous encounter,” up close and personal.

It is late morning. The CREW--five boys, two girls--has been on the job since 8. By day’s end, they will have groomed 200 yards of Pratt Trail, which climbs 6,000 feet up from Ojai.

Blazed years ago by the U.S. Forest Service, it is a favorite of hikers, bikers and equestrians. But every three years native vegetation reclaims it and soil erosion lays bare big rocks.

The Forest Service once maintained the hundreds of miles of forest trails. They no longer can do it alone, because “our budgets have gotten smaller and our jobs more complex,” says Charlie Robinson, recreation officer for the Ojai ranger district. “The CREW really has come along at an ideal time for us. They do a great job--high energy and a lot of spirit.”

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Down the trail, Paul Starbard, long-bladed loppers in hand, is working alongside the kids, as always. The CREW is his baby.

Three years ago, Starbard--an ex-military policeman, ex-hunting guide, ex-building contractor--walked into the Forest Service office. He’d been thinking: The environment’s in trouble. Kids are in trouble. Someone had to make a commitment and, he reasoned, “It might as well be me.”

Step by tiny step, his dream of the CREW (Concerned Resource and Environmental Workers) became a reality. Like those mountain trails, it’s been a path strewn with obstacles, including money shortages. Few would argue the merits of a nonprofit project to put “at risk” kids to work helping Mother Nature, but it takes a fund-raiser to fund raise, it takes funds to hire a fund-raiser. . . .

In bad economic times, “It’s been a struggle, but it’s like a calling,” says Kaufer, a former outdoor-education teacher who recently came aboard.

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The plan was to put 50 local kids to work this summer on the CREW’s first major, continuous project--and more than 100 applied. But the budget dictated only 10 jobs.

The interviews were a bit unusual. Among Starbard’s questions: “Do you mind picking up trash?”

They work a 40-hour week at $5 an hour, paid by the federal Job Training Partnership Act, one of the CREW’s collection of “angels” that includes corporations, private donors, government grants and fee-for-service contracts.

Most of the youngsters have never had a real job before. As Angela Andreasen puts it: “There’s not a lot of jobs out there for 14-year-olds.” Leaning on her rake, her face and neck shaded from a relentless sun by a Foreign Legion-style cap, she says she’s often exhausted; still, she likes “getting pushed.”

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As the only girls in this group, she and sister Karena, 16, have dealt with the macho thing. When the guys complained that this is “a man’s job,” Starbard reminded them that this is not a contest about hauling the most brush; it is a job training experience.

The first day, two boys got into a fight. They were suspended for two days but, by vote of the others, allowed back.

The job is “really adventurous . . . really cool,” says Jesse Cardinali, 15. That pink stuff on his arms is calamine lotion. Poison oak is a common affliction.

But, hey, it’s not one of those stuffy office jobs. “I’d been cooped up in school” all year, says John Verstraeten, 15, who admits to having blown all his pay on video games and clothes. His brother, Jed, 16, was also happy just to “get out of the city.”

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Major downers: Heat. Snakes.

And, says Joshua Halls, 15, “They only let us work eight hours a day. A lot of guys here want to go 10-12 hours.”

Genaro Smart says he’s saved $500 toward a car while “helping the animals.” The CREW has built and placed 100 nesting boxes for endangered birds and has restored fish habitats.

Starbard, 35, who’s “just a grown-up CREW kid” from a high-risk background, negotiated a five-year lease with the Forest Service on a 10-acre former minimal-security facility at Rose Valley, 22 miles from Ojai. Next summer, he hopes to house a CREW there in an ecological boot camp.

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In three years, 200 CREW members, a socioeconomic mix of 14- to 21-year-olds, have signed on for jobs ranging from graffiti removal to pipeline repair.

Now, Starbard’s letting himself think big. A national CREW? “Our whole country’s full of kids who need attention.”

Question About Judaica? Ask Hava, Hava Knows

Curious about the Rosenberg spy case? Or just wondering where to get kosher cuisine in Paris?

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Ask Hava.

For 24 years, Hava Ben Zvi’s been fielding queries both weighty and way-out as head librarian at the Jewish Community Library.

She hardly blinked when a caller asked, “Where is Cain buried?” And she advised the man wishing to learn Hebrew so he could read the Rosetta Stone that hieroglyphics might be more in order.

Ben Zvi’s domain is a 30,000-volume hideaway on the second floor of the mid-Wilshire Jewish Community Building. There, with a skeleton staff and eight way-past-retirement-age volunteers, she runs a resource dedicated to Judaica--from history to folklore to cooking.

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The library, funded by the Jewish Federation Council, is free to the public, although Ben Zvi may ask first-time borrowers for a deposit. Insiders know the library well; “Hava’s Hits,” tips on books to dig into along with “a nice cold borscht,” are posted in the building elevator.

But, outside, the 47-year-old facility is an inadvertently well-kept secret. Those who have found their way there include writers, students, artists, actors and filmmakers in quest of authenticity.

The eclectic mix on the shelves includes an unauthorized biography of David Duke, various editions of the Talmud and “The Greatest Rabbis Hall of Fame.” For the young and their teachers, there are games and videos. This is a people’s library; Jewish university libraries are geared more to scholars.

There are books in English, Hebrew and Yiddish--on Middle Eastern politics, the Holocaust, children’s stories. There’s a six-language Bible, although Ben Zvi says: “I never saw anybody using it.”

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Ben Zvi, born in Poland, learned firsthand about the Holocaust: Her father was killed by the Germans in 1941. She was sheltered by a Catholic family and later used her own wiles to escape: She found sanctuary in a state orphanage, passing as a Gentile.

At war’s end, she was reunited in Palestine with her Zionist mother, who had moved there in 1939. Later, Ben Zvi taught school in Israel and married another Pole; they immigrated to America in 1957.

Perhaps she was born to be a librarian. When she was about 7, her father would take her to the Warsaw library. “They used to transfer me from one branch to another because I’d already read all the children’s books.”

Today, children’s books on Jewish themes are very different. Then, they were “more didactic. The moral was really spelled out. Today, the child’s pleasure is one of the major considerations.”

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The library’s archives of local Jewish history date from 1850, when six Jews lived in the city. (Today, 501,000 live in metropolitan L.A.).

Want to give your baby a name with Hebrew origins? Ask Hava. Looking for a synagogue in Rio? Hava knows.

The library, a project of the Bureau of Jewish Education, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Fridays, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.


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