Tiny Steps on a Path to a Saner World

At the risk of seeming impertinent, may I suggest that anyone racked with pain over the untimely deaths of children in this city, anyone wondering what the hell can be done about gang violence, clip this column and save it.

Please refer to it the next time a youngster is slain, and in your grief, you wonder how to turn this sorry city around.

This is not a miracle solution. We don't have any of those.

We cannot make guns disappear from our streets. We cannot turn the economy around with the wave of a wand. We cannot depend on politicians or police to fix a city whose spirit at times seems irretrievably broken.

What we can do is seize the small opportunities to make a difference that come our way.

I urge you to take a tiny and easy step on the path to changing this city for the better. I urge you to consider becoming a mentor to a child who is at risk of dropping out of school, joining a gang or just losing hope. Most mentoring programs require very little: a background check, an orientation session and minimal amounts of your time--maybe one or two hours a week. And most ask for a commitment of only a year.

I offer this list partly as penance for the sin that I--and many scribes like me--are prone to commit, the sin of hair pulling, teeth gnashing and inaction.

When I was a fledgling columnist in another city prone to losing its children to gunfire, a colleague whose opinion I valued cornered me at a party and delivered some advice that has haunted me each time I am driven to wail in print about another child felled by yet another stray bullet.

"What, exactly," he sighed, "is all the hand wringing supposed to accomplish?"


This abbreviated list should give you an idea of the scores of mentoring opportunities available to anyone who believes that change can happen a child at a time.

* California One-to-One is recruiting mentors for its Los Angeles Team Mentoring Program at public school sites in South-Central, Watts, Pico Union, East L.A. and Hollywood. Teams comprise three adults and 10 or so middle school students, and meet every other week to produce a community service project. For information, call (213) 617-5807. Also available upon request is a "Guide to Mentoring Programs," a compendium of opportunities in Greater L.A.

* Each One Reach One is a mentoring program run by the L.A. Unified School District's School Volunteer Program. It serves all 800-plus schools in the district, and here is the beauty of it: You can call the office, state a preference for a part of town or even a particular school. Coordinator Kathleen Kelly will see that you are assigned to a student, with whom you will spend one hour a week on campus while school is in session. "A lot of these kids only get attention in a negative way and for the first time they are the center of attention in a positive way," Kelly says. "We find [through testing] that self-esteem can triple in the first three months of the relationship." Call (213) 625-6900.

* Catholic Big Brothers hopes to pair the more than 250 fatherless boys on its waiting list with men of any faith in Los Angeles County who are willing to commit three hours a week for one year. The organization does its best to match personalities and interests. Call (213) 251-9800.

* Big Sisters of Los Angeles serves the entire county and pairs women with girls who range in age from 6 to 16. The screening process is a bit more rigorous than some other volunteer programs, and big sisters are asked to spend between three and five hours a week with their "little sisters" for one year. Call (213) 933-5749.

* Project STEP is a Los Angeles Free Clinic-based program in Hollywood that pairs adults with homeless, high-risk youngsters for an hour a week. Minimum commitment is six weeks. The goal, says program director Steve Knight, is to help the kids establish positive adult relationships and acquire job-seeking skills. Call (213) 462-8632.

* In Orange County: United for Success Mentoring Program is operated by the YMCA in Costa Mesa and serves at-risk elementary school students by pairing them with mentors for six hours a month for at least one year. Call Danny Oaxaca at (714) 442-1000.


You could do it for Stephanie Kuhen, the little girl who died three weeks ago in a hail of gunfire on Isabel Street in Cypress Park.

Or you could do it for yourself.

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