SOUTH-CENTRAL : Bikes Keep Them on the Right Path

For most youths paying the often stern piper of the juvenile justice system, court-ordered community service can mean long Saturdays painting over graffiti-blighted walls or collecting garbage along streets.

But a local youth center now offers an alternative for young men and women obliged to further the public good as penance for wrongdoing: They can fix bicycles.

Under a pilot program created by the county Probation Department, about 20 fledgling bike mechanics gather every Saturday to repair broken and rusty two-wheelers at the People Who Care Youth Center, 1504 Slauson Ave.

Half of the repaired bikes, about 100 so far, have been given to families too poor to buy them otherwise. The other half goes to the Probation Department, to be distributed as rewards for youths under their supervision who stay out of trouble.

Connie Watson, executive director of People Who Care, said the bike repair program also benefits participants because it helps build self-esteem.

"They get to see the immediate results of their efforts. They get immediate gratification," Watson said. "Hopefully that kind of feeling will stick, and they'll move onto other things that will make them feel as good about themselves."

Most of the youths in the program are first-time offenders picked up for such crimes as shoplifting, joy-riding and assault.

The Community Bike Repair program was born in November from a shotgun marriage of county budget cuts and ingenuity.

Until last fall, the county Probation Department was giving the Department of Social Service about $5,000 a year to repair unclaimed or stolen two-wheelers recovered by sheriff's deputies. As part of a program to build skills, welfare recipients worked on the bicycles, which were then distributed by the Probation Department to youths who beat the criminal life.

But all that came to a halt when the county budget ax eliminated funds for the program in both departments.

Probation Department spokesman Robert Sainz said his agency devised the new bike repair program as a way to maintain the flow of two-wheelers for its incentive program and offer community service workers a chance to learn a marketable skill.

People Who Care, along with two other community agencies in East Los Angeles and El Sereno, volunteered as laboratories for the pilot program. Sainz said the decision on whether to expand the program depends largely on his department's budget.

"This is something that provides them with an opportunity to achieve," Sainz said. "You can't have every kid doing graffiti paint-out."

Watson agreed. Graffiti removal and neighborhood cleanups, like all community service programs, are voluntary. Yet Watson said these activities tend to fuel a sense of futility among participants because they know the fruits of their labor will most likely be quashed by the nearest tagger or illegal trash dumper.

"There's more positive reinforcement with the bike program than with a graffiti paint-out," she said.

For 13-year-old Robert Stewart III, the program's biggest draw is its dependability: It is always there to help chase away Saturday afternoon boredom.

The student at Mary McLeod Bethune Junior High School also takes satisfaction in giving away bikes he has worked so hard to repair. "I like seeing the bikes go to kids who don't have one," said Stewart, who continues to work in the program even though is community service requirement ended earlier this month.

Lewis Douglas, a longtime auto mechanic, travels every Saturday from his home in Watts to the center to volunteer as bike repair instructor.

"I get a chance to offer something to these kids," he said. "Knowing some of their backgrounds, hopefully I can influence them to become mechanics or technicians and keep them out of trouble."

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