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Night Moves : After-Hours Gym Attracts Praise, but Not the At-Risk Youths It Was Opened For

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here, in the second-floor gymnasium of the Verdugo Recreation Center, fifth-grader Michael Vahoviak drops by on his bicycle to shoot hoops, swearing he rarely misses the chance.

A 17-year-old self-described gang member plays a game of pool shortly before two high school friends arrive for Ping-Pong.

Meanwhile, Domino Giovanni, a popular disc jockey for KIIS-FM, plays basketball nearby with a registered nurse from the Philippines and others, echoing a refrain shared by all of them:

“These gyms make a difference. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t (play) ball.”

Modeled after the nationwide programs known as midnight basketball, Midnight Gym opened in 1993 to keep youths off the streets during the hours when they are most likely to cause mischief.

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A lack of attendance, however, has forced the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to close the gym on Friday nights during the school year and an hour early, at 11 p.m., on Saturdays.

“Our first vision was that it was going to be for kids on the fringe,” said Burbank’s parks and recreation director, Mary Alvord. “But the healthy thing about it is that out of 30 kids, a handful of them are at-risk, they mix and friendships come about.

“Our concern is how to get the word out more in the neighborhoods where we want to draw from, where we have the most gang activity.”

City officials hope to spread the word by using a van to bring sporting equipment and other supplies to various neighborhoods in the city this summer.

Elsewhere, the concept of late-night recreation thrives at places like the Harvard Recreation Center in South-Central Los Angeles, where nearly 200 young adults play on basketball teams twice a week and another 96 are on waiting lists. The Los Angeles Clippers even contributed $50,000 this year toward uniforms and salaries for game officials, among other things.

“The key is to create a sexy athletic program for someone who might have other alternatives, like cruising the streets: uniforms, referees, promoting the program and getting business support,” said Stan Hebert, national director of the Oakland-based Midnight Basketball League.

“At-risk kids don’t necessarily come out of the woodwork, but they are also not difficult to reach. You have to bait them properly.”

Compared to Harvard, Burbank’s Midnight Gym operates this year on a shoestring budget of $2,400 from the city’s General Fund--enough to pay for one staff supervisor responsible for handing out basketballs and watching over the courts.

An average of 25 to 35 people show up each week, far fewer than what recreation officials say they could accommodate, and fewer still considering the estimated 600 to 1,000 gang members living in Burbank.

The gym gets glowing praise from those who use it. But city recreation officials acknowledge that it has failed to attract its target audience: youths between the ages of 14 and 25 at risk for joining gangs or committing crimes.

“I think it’s not really reaching the kids we want to reach,” said Carol Finkle, a recreation program coordinator who helped start the Midnight Gym. “Part of the problem is that basketball is, in and of itself, not a part of the Hispanic culture. And the gang makeup in Burbank, at least, is primarily Hispanic.

“We’re not maybe offering the right things culturally.”

Yet recreation officials say they are grateful to keep even one young adult off the streets on Saturday nights, a sentiment shared by the Burbank Police Department. In Burbank, the program is not controversial, although funding for Midnight Basketball became the centerpiece of opposition to President Clinton’s crime bill last year.

“Any kind of recreation program for kids, whether it’s with gang members or other types of kids, would be beneficial,” said Police Lt. Larry Koch. “It gives them structured activity and steers them away from trouble.

“It can remove a fringe element, where kids who may hang out in certain areas become victims of gangs or hang out with gangs.”


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