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A Different Perspective : From a Basketball Game Emerged a Haven for Kids Who Once Roamed the Streets

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1988, studio singer Mitchel Moore got a temporary job as tenor soloist at Immanuel Presbyterian Church--and discovered the kids hanging around the streets, alleys and parking lots in the church’s mid-Wilshire neighborhood, an area that is home to at least 80 gangs.

With the help of two friends, Moore decided to organize a Saturday morning basketball game for the youths, getting permission to use the church’s dilapidated gym. On the first day, only five would-be players showed up, but Moore pressed on week after week until a momentum began to build.

Moore, 43, still sings, with recent credits including the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.”

But he also devotes 12 to 16 hours a day as founder and executive director of Heart of Los Angeles Youth (HOLA), the nonprofit organization spawned by that basketball game. Still based at the church, HOLA offers athletic, artistic and educational activities after school and on Saturdays for 600 boys and girls ages 6 through 19.

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“We look at this as a place for kids who choose an alternative to the streets and gang-banging,” says Moore. “The majority of the kids live in single-parent households, and come from very low economic backgrounds. Some are obviously abused--we’ve dealt with Children’s Services, and we do referrals with youth-counseling agencies.”

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From 80 to 100 children and teens--who come from the surrounding neighborhood, Downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and as far away as Inglewood--are at the church on any given day. They have a wide range of pursuits, led by a small staff and about 80 volunteers.

The church study hall provides homework facilities and is the site of a literacy program. In the art room, crafts and paintings are on display, including an accomplished seascape by a former gang member.

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The dance room is the base for a rhythmic gymnastics program. An equipment-packed weight room is jammed every day for workouts, Moore says. Also popular is the billiards/Ping-Pong room.

There is a theater with dressing rooms and a wardrobe area. Acting and playwriting programs are headed by volunteer Garrett Brown, a co-star on the NBC drama series “Sisters.” Ten HOLA kids participate in a comedy improv program at USC.

Being readied for a grand opening on Saturday--HOLA’s second anniversary--are the refurbished gymnasium and locker rooms. Even the gym roof does double duty, with handball, racquetball and basketball courts.

“It’s so great to be above everything,” Moore says. “The kids feel like they’re on top of the world, above all their problems on the street. They have a different perspective.”

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Moore called upon his entertainment and church contacts to help launch HOLA and secure funding, equipment and other donations. A former interior designer whose clients included Henry Mancini and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he used his artistic experience to breathe new life into the church’s existing facilities.

“All the things I’ve learned all my life--design, music, art--have enabled me to do these things here,” he says. “I came from a broken home, and those things kept me sane. Pride, self-esteem--that’s what I bring to this place.”

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HOLA also runs a job-placement program, and it has established relationships with nearby Los Angeles Police divisions. Officers serve as coaches and advisers and refer youths to the organization.

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One 16-year-old former gang member wants to join the Police Academy when he graduates from high school. Two years ago, Moore recalls, in a dramatic parking lot confrontation with his gang, the boy chose to remain with HOLA.

Another success story is Osmany Batte, 18, another former gang member--and painter of that compelling seascape--who has been coming to HOLA since February.

“My life turned around here,” Batte says. “They take you to places you never thought you’d go to, because there’s more than life on the street. I’ve learned so much here. I can experiment. And they keep motivating you--Mitch gave me an art table. I sell my art at Broadway Plaza.”

Moore has learned a valuable lesson because of HOLA, he says. “Everyone sits around saying, ‘The situation is so hopeless, so bad.’ I did, too. But a person with an idea, a dream, can make a difference.”

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* Those interested in learning more about HOLA can telephone Moore at (213) 389-1148.


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