Kids gasp when Pat Hines smashes watermelons at their feet.
Plain melons crack apart with a splat. But watermelons with a bike helmet strapped around them smack the ground without splitting open.
It's a quick way for Hines and the children's safety group she calls Safe Moves to show the importance of wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle.
Now, says Hines, if she could only convince those melon-headed bureaucrats how important her 12-year-old organization is to students across Los Angeles.
Administrators of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority--which pays more than half of the $830,000 annual cost of the safety program--want to yank the funding.
Nothing personal, MTA officials say. It's just that the cash was never intended to be a permanent thing--just onetime seed money to help get the nonprofit program going under its own steam.
"Our issue is not that it's a bad program, but that it's a program that doesn't qualify in its category because it's been ongoing for a number of years," said Robert Cashin, who heads MTA's staff committee that has recommended rejection of Hines' money request.
"We feel it's not an appropriate use for these funds. There are other sources . . . available. If you don't make projects look for other sources of money, after five or six years, all the old programs would have all the [MTA] money locked up."
Hines is taking it personally, however.
She contends that the safety program she started after her best friend was killed on a bicycle will disappear if she loses the $543,000 in MTA money. That's because most of its other funding comes from matching grants that are tied to the transit agency's allocation.
The dispute will land in the laps of MTA directors today when they begin divvying up $503 million available for special transportation projects over the next four years. Officials have received 425 applications from groups seeking grants totaling $1.8 billion.
The showdown will be watched closely by fund-raisers from Los Angeles nonprofit groups.
They say competition for dollars has grown fierce as private donations have shriveled and government spending has been scaled back. As a result, some organizations have come to rely heavily on single funding sources that can dry up quickly.
But there is nothing wrong with speaking up if your group is threatened with the loss of major donations or grants, said Eric Trules, a USC theater professor who has spent 20 years raising funds for nonprofit arts groups.
"I feel the squeaky wheel gets the oil," he said. "If you make a public stink, they'll say, 'Shut up. Here's your grant.' "
That's the tack Hines, 40, is taking. She minces few words about the shortsightedness she perceives among those in the MTA who oppose renewal of her grant.
"I'm being forced to bite the hand that feeds me. I'm terrified, but what choice do I have?" she said.
"The MTA is pouring money down a black hole with some of these projects they are funding. It's outrageous the way they waste money on projects that go nowhere. These people are asphalt guys--guys who like to build stuff."
In the meantime, she is working to promote Safe Moves' work in print and on television. Letters of support have been solicited from parents, principals and politicians.
City Councilman Hal Bernson has written transit executives, terming loss of the program a "dreadful mistake on the part of the MTA."
Although Hines acknowledges that she is reapplying for a grant, she contends that hers "is not an ongoing program" but instead an "expanding" one that meets MTA's criteria.
"It reaches new children every time. Our curriculum changes all the time because of changes in the law. The face of transportation changes on a daily basis in L. A."
She tapped into MTA funds in 1991 after adding transit topics to her curriculum. A staff of 19 conducts safety seminars and talks up the benefits of mass transit at about 1,200 schools a year.
Hines claims that about 1 million children are exposed annually to the program's bike safety rodeos and seminars. The gatherings often feature funny characters that resemble dancing traffic lights and stop signs.