From Destruction to Construction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a simple storage shed, 35 by 20 feet, built in the speckled shade of a persimmon tree to shelter lawn mowers, tools and the like. It is sturdy and new but otherwise unremarkable except to those who built it and watched it rise nail by nail and board by board from a deserted slab of old concrete.

As Juan Diaz, 19, examines the finished product, he describes how during its construction, he wasn't just building a shed. He was building a new life.

Diaz helped build the structure through Fix-It Network Enterprise, a program designed to teach construction skills to young people assigned by court order to Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services, a private agency that works with juvenile offenders.

Diaz was placed on probation after running afoul of the law and spent two years at Optimist. He did well in school and pieces of his new life were falling neatly into place. His goals were clear. Upon graduation, he would work in construction and return home to his mother. He wanted to prove to her that he had changed and make amends for heartbreak he had caused.

But, then, she died.

A diabetic, she went into a coma and never returned. With her death, the center of Diaz's life suddenly was gone. "I thought we were going to lose him," says Lou Reta, founding teacher of the Fix-It program. "We thought he was going to fall apart."

What helped save him, Diaz says, was Reta. "He was there for me. He told me to keep my head up."

Diaz worked hard to stay the course, live life in a way that would make his mother proud. Then last September, Reta drove Diaz and the other students to one of the Optimist group homes in Altadena. They walked to the back of the lot and saw a slab of concrete covered with bushes, weeds and debris. After clearing the area, they began to build.

Diaz helped frame the building and was also doing some building in another part of his life. He and his father were never close, but after his mother's death, the two were able to work out many of their differences.

At his high school graduation in February, with diploma in hand, Diaz described how he wished his mother could be there, how pleased she might be by the man he had become.

He is 19 now, living with his father. This summer he will seek work and begin classes at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, where he will further his studies in construction.

As he looks at the shed, he feels a sense of accomplishment that has carried over into other aspects of his life. "It makes you feel good about yourself," he says, "accomplishing something you never thought you could."

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The Optimist residential care facilities house 100 boys in five dormitories. There also are seven group homes throughout the area, five for boys and two for girls, a nonresidential treatment program and a foster family program. Many participants attend the alternative high school through which the Fix-It program is offered.

Optimist programs ask young people, repeat offenders on probation, to look closely at their lives. It is a place to build new futures, and so it made perfect sense that students might benefit from a program taught by someone who truly knew how to build.

In 1997, Reta, working as a carpenter in the maintenance department, was asked to develop a class outline for the program. He had experience teaching high school woodworking, although his credential had expired.

Working with a credentialed assistant, Reta started the program the next year, setting out to build hope with boards, nails and a belief that one's hands can play an important role in repairing one's life. He started with four students, and the class has since doubled in size. Students receive school credit and $4 an hour building projects for Optimist facilities.

Fix-It offers students an option, says Silvio Orlando, executive director of the organization, to chose a new direction. "It also allows them to see a project through to completion," Orlando says, "which gives them a sense of pride and self-confidence, which is critical to their success."

Reta approaches teaching from the perspective that there is much in education that cannot come from books. "When I learned to change a tire," he says, "I didn't learn to do it from a book. My dad sat down with me next to a car, and I changed the tire. That's how I do the class."

Reta, 34, graduated from Schurr High School in Montebello in 1984 and from Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in 1986. He has always been drawn to building, the process of "seeing something evolve from nothing."

Through Fix-It, he says, he is able to help young people who, through past mistakes, understand the serious nature of education and do not take the work lightly.

"In public high school, the kids were there and a lot of them had an 'I don't care' attitude. . . . The kids here have to be here, but they're like sponges. They want the information. Maybe it's because they feel it's their last chance to get anything out of life."

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For 18-year-old Brian, the program provided direction to a life in turmoil. In 1998, his twin brother was coming home from high school football practice when he was gunned down outside their home in Compton. Brian heard the gunfire, saw his brother on the ground, picked him up and carried him home.

The fatal shooting was a case of mistaken identity. It was Brian, not his brother, who chose gang banging. It was Brian, not his brother, whom the shooters targeted.

"They were looking for me," he says. "I just have to deal with the guilt. Every time I think about it, I wish they would have took me instead of him."

Something about building helps ease pain, he says, helps sleep come late at night. He will be leaving the Optimist home in July to set out on a new life. While his brother is gone, there are others now who need him--twins born on Easter Sunday.

"It's time for me to be a father," he says, "to do the right thing."

He plans to seek work in construction and attend trade school. Learning to work with his hands, he says, has made a huge difference in his life.

"I've always used them to do destructive things," he says, gently stroking the palm of one over the knuckles of the other. He looks at the shed, freshly painted and completed. "This was a chance to do something constructive instead."

It is a feeling shared by others who worked on the project. Its completion is celebrated with a barbecue and certificates of appreciation from the group home.

It is a good shed, Diaz says. It will not fall to pieces, the way life sometimes does. Twenty years from now, he says, perhaps he will visit it again, to be reminded of how hope--as distant and unattainable as it sometimes seems--can emerge from an old, deserted slab of concrete.

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