Skills for Building a Better Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A room at the East Los Angeles Skills Center is lively with the pounding of hammers and the humming of power tools: the sounds of a dozen young adults, homeless or raised in the foster care system, learning construction skills.

A few miles away in Boyle Heights is a run-down building they will eventually refurbish and turn into low-income housing for five families.

The youth are involved in "Students at Work," a new program operated by the nonprofit Community Enhancement Corp.

On the surface, the program merely trains the students for jobs in construction while providing housing for a few families in the community.

But for Community Enhancement, established in 1992 to work on affordable housing for the community and transitional housing for young people leaving the foster care system, the program is the first element in a three-part "community building" vision.

The organization is working with East Los Angeles College and UC Riverside to create a community studies major at the university.

In the UC system, only Santa Cruz has such a major. The California State University doesn't have majors matching that description exactly, though various classes in other majors may touch upon the "community building" philosophy, a spokesman said.

The idea for now is to draft East Los Angeles College students as mentors to the students in the construction program, helping with academics or simply encouraging them. The college students would then get credit at UC Riverside toward a degree that preliminarily would include classes on topics such as population growth, sociology and homelessness.

After graduating from the university, ideally, the students would return to East L.A. and work on issues such as low-income housing or homelessness as employees of private or public agencies.

So far, East Los Angeles College has agreed to provide the mentors. Two have signed up.

"What makes this program so unique is that we are tapping into a population that may not get exposure to East Los Angeles College," said Alma Johnson-Hawkins, the college's dean of vocational education.

UC Riverside Chancellor Ray Orbach supports the idea, though the process of establishing the major--and eventually a department--could take years.

"There's something there for everybody," said Javier Hernandez, UC Riverside's director of early academic outreach programs, who has been working with Community Enhancement Corp. "We get students that transfer to the university, students are being trained, a work force is being created."

He said that even before the major is established, the university can give the East Los Angeles College mentors credit in existing majors, such as sociology.

In time, Esther Torrez, Community Enhancement Corp.'s executive director, hopes to use the model in other communities and to tap corporate donors to fund a scholarship for students pursuing community studies.

UC Santa Cruz's major presents a picture of what Torrez's vision might become:

The heart of the major--currently with 180 students--emphasizes community involvement. The students are required to spend six months working in community services--be it health clinics or gang-intervention programs--locally, around the country and abroad.

"We've had a huge impact in Santa Cruz and the Watsonville area," said Mike Rotkin, field study coordinator for the UC Santa Cruz major.

For now, the students in East L.A.'s skills center construction class simply know that their training can lead to stability after a life of uncertainty.

"I see myself having a house one day," said Lance Rankin, 19, a polite young man who lives in Hollywood's Covenant House, a shelter environment he has been familiar with since he was 7. "I see myself probably having a business and being successful."

For now, the most advanced portion of Community Enhancement Corp.'s broader goal is its first element: the skills center class taught by Brian Hurd.

This is the second year of the class. Four graduates from last year are now working in construction. Their refurbishing project was two single-family houses on 9th Avenue in South-Central L.A. that were bought by people using city and federal subsidies.

One of Community Enhancement Corp.'s trademarks has been establishing transitional housing for youths leaving county care. Its Margarita Mendez Apartments, opened in 1997 in East Los Angeles, was then a cutting-edge project. Now the Youth at Work program aims to serve them beyond their basic needs.

"These youth needed more than housing," Torrez said. "They needed skills."

The class, in which they learn the details of plumbing, electrical wiring and framing, among other things, provides them certification. Each is guaranteed a job at one of the construction companies that Community Enhancement Corp. contracts with on other projects.

Along with driving nails and erecting walls, the students learn math, reading and writing skills.

"People say how can someone like you--a woman--do this kind of work," said Fabiola Medina, 20. "I just think of me and my son. I want to put him through school, college, everything that I didn't have."

The students have not yet worked with mentors and don't know much about Torrez's broader vision. They do know, however, that they will be helping provide someone a home.

"It's not only teaching us about building but also getting involved in the community," said Suzie Provencio, 19.

Provencio, who got 98% on her first test in the construction class, doesn't remember ever not being in foster care.

"We're basically giving someone else a chance like someone gave us a chance when we were little," she said.

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