They moved into the city’s toughest neighborhoods two weeks ago, with their sleeping bags and wide-eyed idealism--20 college students from places including Olympia, Wash.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Newport Beach, ready to change the world by summer’s end.
But the unpaid interns for Kidworks, a nondenominational ministry that sponsors the six-week youth program, got a sobering reality check their first week:
In Santa Ana, where two groups of students live, four people were killed in unrelated incidents last weekend, one of the city’s worst spates of violence in recent years.
Several students heard the shots at 11:20 p.m. in the South Townsend Street slaying and rushed into the back alley of their apartment where they found the 20-year-old victim; two of the students had never heard gunfire before.
A few days earlier, down the street from their Santa Ana apartment, a group of students saw a young man poke out of the sunroof of a passing car and fire a 9-millimeter handgun at another driver. No one was hurt in the 2:30 p.m. shooting.
Still, the students say the violence won’t scare them off.
“It’s frightening, and it’s scary, but it’s not something that would cause me not to be here, especially for the kids,” said Rochelle Johnsson, 21, who grew up in Findlay, Ohio.
“Every day, that’s what they face, that’s all they know. . . . Maybe I won’t totally understand what they’re going through, but I want to understand what their life is like.”
Kidworks, which began three summers ago, is a nonprofit arm of the National Institute of Youth Ministry in San Clemente. The $34,500 program is funded by donations and grants from sponsors including Disneyland and Mariners Church in Newport Beach.
Under the program, the interns run free day camps, with games, crafts and Bible studies for hundreds of kids at three sites. Three days a week, they erect circus-like awnings at low-income apartment complexes on Minnie Street and South Townsend Street in Santa Ana and Keel Avenue in Garden Grove.
This year, for the first time, each intern will pick three to five children for mentoring sessions on everything from table manners to how to address an envelope. They plan to take the kids camping and to the beach. At their apartments, the interns will organize classes on low-fat cooking, gardening and cosmetics.
“It means a lot that we’re here among them,” said Sara Villines, 20, a communication disorders major at Biola University in La Mirada. “We don’t drive back to our nice, fancy homes. We’re part of the neighborhood. We borrow their pots and pans.”
It’s the flip side of the self-absorbed Generation X lifestyle captured by MTV’s “The Real World,” a documentary-like program in which young roommates share hip, pricey digs in San Francisco or London. Kidworks’ interns joke that they are “The Real World,” in apartments with cockroaches, tattered screens and worn linoleum.
They cling to the hope that their summer stay will touch a few kids, even help steer some toward college if they talk it up enough.
“My biggest fear in relating to people is that I would be irrelevant,” said Kayo Nakamura, 24, a Huntington Beach resident, “but just the physical surroundings being the same--we wake up and see the same things--it makes it easier to bridge some gaps.
“Hopefully, they’ll remember that we all hung out.”
Some interns say they joined the program for the chance to see a world outside their fields of study, which include business, art and cosmetology. All say they are blessed and want to give something back to those who are perhaps less fortunate. (On Minnie Street, for example, 81% of residents didn’t finish high school; the per-capita income is $5,196, and 72% are immigrants, according to 1990 census figures.)
Four or five of the students cram into the one-bedroom, sweltering apartments that turn into kid magnets, with endless supplies of crayons, games and hugs. Bed means a sleeping bag or foam mattress; privacy means you crawl into the closet with a book and hope no one crawls in after you.
Landlords provide the rent-free apartments, where the students take turns cooking instant ramen noodles, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese. Kidworks directors drop by groceries including rice and beans, or ethnic foods, with no instructions attached. They hope that students will go talk to neighbors and swap recipes.
Already, Sam Gonzalez, 20, misses his mom’s home cooking in Delano, Calif., and Katy Clark, 19, a competitive runner at UC Irvine, wishes she could work out at the university’s gym. Instead, she runs up and down a short stretch of busy Harbor Boulevard every morning.
But, students say the sacrifices are small in a place where 4-year-olds make do with a makeshift tetherball--a stuffed plastic grocery bag on a long string tied to the rooftop.
They get back tenfold, in the form of the paper plate art that the kids made to decorate their walls, by way of the neighborhood’s nighttime parties, with impromptu salsa dancing lessons in the courtyard, students say. And the kids give them their grade-school pictures, a cementing of friendship as sure as an engagement ring.
Joshua Cervantes, 9, says he doesn’t know what he would do this summer without Kidworks. The day camp gets bigger each time as more youngsters stumble across it.
“Sometimes, kids get lost, and they stay here because they think it’s the only place to be,” said Joshua, who wants to be a news reporter or veterinarian when he grows up.
On a recent afternoon, his grandmother, Margarita Peres, 80, watched the day camp’s games from a lawn chair in a patch of shade.
“They like us so well,” she said, nodding approvingly. “It’s like a family. We’re all here together.”
But parents of the interns don’t always understand the neighborhoods, said Eric Marsh, Kidworks’ director. He got a few panicked calls after the recent slaying on Townsend Street, but assured parents that Kidworks’ interns have never been hurt.
Still, “it’s a risk,” Marsh conceded. “Parents are paranoid, especially the ones calling from Ohio.”
Last week, he said, gang members broke into an intern’s car and stole her Christian music tapes--but later returned them when they found out the Toyota Corolla was owned by a Kidworks’ volunteer.
Santa Ana police counter that the interns are in no particular danger. The recent run of violence was “an anomaly,” said Lt. Mike Foote , one of the worst he remembers in 20 years on the force.
In fact, he said, the city’s crime rate is 36% lower than it was in 1990.
The interns are still wary, their antennas up.
On Townsend Street, neighbors left candles and flowers at the spot where the victim was shot in the head in an apparent gang-related shooting.
Intern Rebecca Lein , a nursing student from Orange, doesn’t need the reminder. Her nerves are jangled enough.
“I was wondering if, like, someone would be bursting into the apartment,” said Lein, 20, who describes her upbringing as middle class and sheltered. “Just like, ‘Why are you people here?’ kind of thing. ‘Get out of our neighborhood.’
“Inside, I was wondering if that’s how everybody was feeling. There was a little bit of panic. I wasn’t sure if this was going to go on every night.”
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A nondenominational ministry called Kidworks is sponsoring free day camps for children. Here are camp locations; more information: (714) 554-7500
* 1000 block of Minnie Street, in the courtyard; Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 3 to 5:30 p.m.
* 800 block of South Townsend Street, in the courtyard; Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 3 to 5:30 p.m.
* Keel Avenue Park, at Keel Avenue and Clinton Street; Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 2 to 4:30 p.m.