In Mentoring Inner City Youth
By David Kobrin
note: The names of the boys and their families have been changed to protect
It was a rainy weekday morning in the last days of December 1994 when I
first entered the forbidding boundaries of Watts, California. If I had
believed everything I read, I'd have thought I was crazy to venture into
this part of town. After all, I had been in Los Angeles during the riots
and seen the damage thrust upon people and property in this location.
There was nothing obviously wrong with the neighborhood when I arrived.
The giant housing project of Nickerson Gardens loomed like a fort over
the area I was visiting. I had been drawn to this section of town
for one reason, and one reason only. I wanted to mentor a child from
the inner city and had heard of a Watts organization prepared to match
people with students.
With the light rain turning to a downpour, I found the small, building
which were the headquarters for Los Angeles Cities in School, a chapter
of a national group which caters to the needs of young people all across
As I parked the car and walked around the gated building to the entrance,
I didn't see many people on the streets. Obviously the rain had something
to do with this, but even so, the emptiness of the streets made me wonder
if people were afraid to travel these dangerous streets. An
and middle school were located down the street and I figured traffic to
and from those places would provide some life.
It dawned on me we were in the middle of winter vacation, but I still figured
there would be more activity. Those thoughts stayed with me as I entered
the gated building to talk with the mentor coordinator for the group.
I felt no apprehension and looked forward to speaking with the people running
The building was sparsely decorated, but the essential telephones and desks
were neat and orderly. I sat on a comfortable leather couch and waited.
A couple of minutes passed by and the mentor coordinator, Michelle, came
in and introduced herself. She was a small woman with sharp facial
features and a warm smile. Her strong handshake made me feel welcome
and she escorted me to the back room to meet Leon Watkins, the managing
director of Los Angeles Cities in Schools.
Watkins was the opposite of the mentor coordinator. He was a large
man who occupied a big desk in a small office. His personality was
disarming and he graciously welcomed me into his domain. I soon discovered
he had been a community leader for close to twenty years and this job was
his latest crusade to help the young people of Los Angeles.
From the moment he started describing his mission I knew this would be
a group in which I wished to be involved. I also knew I would have
to prove myself to him. He explained many people had come in with
quick solutions to complex problems and then disappeared when the going
got tough. Here I was a white person coming into a black neighborhood
with wonderful ideas of how I could help a child. I probably fit
the bill of the type of person he would be wary of.
After a few minutes of general introduction, I told the two of them how
I ended up in their office this rainy morning. A month earlier I
had traveled to 75th street school in South Central Los Angeles to meet
a dynamic counselor, Re Kelly-Weekes, who ran a peacemaking program at
the school. While I was in her office, three young boys happened
to be sitting around, waiting to talk to her.
I struck up a conversation with them and for the first time heard from
a child what growing up in an inner city is like; helicopters flying overhead,
gunshots, gangs, dirt, and crime were the rule, not the exception.
It happened to be a few days after Halloween, but these boys did not dare
walk into the streets to go trick or treating.
A year earlier, in a section of Pasadena, three boys had been shot to death
in a mistaken identity shooting and I'm sure this incident, coupled with
a hostile environment, made trick of treating an impossible game. They
described how they had cousins in jail, parents who had been
shot or killed,
friends arrested for selling drugs at the tender age of fourteen and forbidden
sections of town where only the brave survive and the wrong color could
get you murdered.
They shared their views of the 1992 riots which erupted less than two miles
from their homes. The police station next to their school was the
ground zero station. The national guard used the 75th street school playground
as a staging area to fight off the looters and rioters. The picture
appeared bleak and these boys were only ten years old. My heart went
out to them. Who wouldn't want to encourage a child after what I
heard. And you know, the funny thing is they had hardened
in such a way that they could almost smile as they recounted their daily
All except one boy.
His name was Carl Harris and there was no smile on his face. He had
lost his mother two years earlier in a hit and run accident. Trouble
followed him around school and in his class. I decided to do some
origami with them since I enjoy creating things out of paper and giving
them to kids. If there were ever three boys who would benefit from
a paper bird or crane, they would. I fashioned a bird whose wings
move when you pull the tail. I presented it to Carl and
for a couple
of minutes he smiled from ear to ear. Whatever heartbreaking stuff
he was dealing with went away for those few seconds and he looked like
a happy ten year old.
And that moment, that smile, that boy changed my life in the most incredible,
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