Foundation pledges $5 million for Watts social, educational programs

Rick Caruso announces initiatives to provide assistance for at-risk youth in Watts through Operation Progress.
(Alexandra Wyman / Invision for Caruso Affiliated)

Mall developer and political mover Rick Caruso pledged $5 million Wednesday to expand an “ecosystem” of social and educational programs in Watts, with the goal of helping 200 young people break out of poverty and violence in South Los Angeles.

The donation from the Caruso Family Foundation will support the programs for a decade. It will pay for about a seven-fold increase in students benefiting from tutors, weekend mentors and college scholarships via Operation Progress, an umbrella service organization founded in 1999 by Los Angeles police officers.

The gift was announced at a news conference at Verbum Dei High School. Afterward, Caruso, the developer behind the Grove and Americana at Brand malls, recalled that a decade ago, when he was an L.A. police commissioner, officers had bad relations with Watts’ housing projects, chased out by gunfire and gang members who targeted them with false abuse complaints.

Caruso said he was inspired about that time by a group of LAPD officers, led by Officer John Coughlin, who were working to build better relationships with the community. Their organization, Operation Progress, offered mentoring to promising students and raised money for college scholarships.

The group makes “kids around the Watts community feel important, feel special,” Caruso said. “It’s giving them hope. It’s giving them opportunity. It’s allowing them to grow to be our future leaders.”


Today, Operation Progress works with a number of nonprofits, among them: South Central Scholars, a summer training and scholarship program that has helped 1,000 students attend college; Helping Young People Excel, or HYPE, which helps gifted students prepare for top college prep schools; and Strive Los Angeles, which operates after school programs.

Theresa Gartland, executive director of Operation Progress, is now coordinating various services for 27 elementary and high school students. Students are required to maintain at least a B average and maintain behavior standards, while their parents take parenting classes.

Caruso’s donation will allow the program to add 30 more students a year until it is serving 200, Gartland said.

“These kids are an investment,” Coughlin said. “These kids are going to succeed. They are going to pay taxes. They are going to give back.”

Earlier graduates of the program, including a nurse, a basketball coach and a psychologist, have returned to Watts to help others, he said.