For a second summer, the city of Los Angeles will keep some of its parks and recreation centers open until midnight. KPCC’s Frank Stoltze reports that the “Summer Night Lights” program puts young people to work helping their peers stay out of trouble.
Frank Stoltze: Outside a recreation center in the Imperial Courts public housing project in South L.A., Alex Paredes sports a t-shirt that identifies him as a member of the “Youth Squad.” The 18-year-old is one of 160 young people the city of Los Angeles has hired to help run its summer programs.
Alex Paredes: Most of my friends, I went to high school and everything, elementary, they are all gang members now or either in jail.
Frank Stoltze: What would you be doing if this program didn’t hire you this summer?
Paredes: Probably out on the streets.
Stoltze: Doing what?
Paredes: Not anything good. Maybe smoking a little something, you know.
Stoltze: Paredes has a 2-year-old son. He says he wants to start setting a good example, and improving the community he'll grow up in. Paredes work with peers at Sepulveda Park in Panorama City.
Seventeen-year-old Aja Price will encourage kids to participate in sports and arts programs at Denker Park in South L.A.
Aja Price: Like 'cause there's a lot of gangbanging in my community and just want to tell some of them to come to the park and have fun.
Stoltze: You want to tell some of the gangbangers to stop gangbanging?
Price: Yeah. Stop gangbanging. Stop shooting my peoples.
Stoltze: Some of those guys are pretty hardheaded.
Price: Yeah, I know. It just takes some time. I think I can do it. I'm going to tell them to put the guns down, come eat some good ol' barbecue, play some basketball, you know.
Stoltze: You ever had a job like this before?
Price: No, this is my first job like this. Yeah, it’s pretty cool though.
Stoltze: Each member of the Youth Squad receives $3,500 for eight weeks of work. It’s the biggest money most of them have ever seen.
USC football coach Pete Carroll is a big supporter of Summer Night Lights, the program that will offer activities until midnight at 16 parks and recreation centers in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.
Pete Carroll: Well, all we ever do is try to help people figure out how good they can be – you know, whether we are talking football or we're talking in the streets. And try to help them see a way that they can maximize their opportunities, and that's exactly what we are doing here, and hopefully we are making a difference.
Stoltze: Carroll heads his own foundation that works with troubled kids. He’s personally tried to encourage kids to stay out of gangs. More money for similar programs wouldn’t hurt, Carroll said.
Carroll: It is very frustrating that after all of these years of knowing there's a big issue in our neighborhoods that we're still fighting so hard to get our head above water.
Stoltze: Carroll praised Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for preserving and doubling the number of participating parks in the Summer Night Lights program. The mayor did it by raising more than a million dollars in private money. Villaraigosa says that kind of philanthropy is key as government slashes budgets.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: That's why I have an office of strategic partnerships for the first time in the city where we actually work with philanthropy and identify the synergies and the overlap between their priorities and ours – particularly in these times where there's so much need out there.
Stoltze: Earlier, Villaraigosa promised he’d also find money to build a new pool at Imperial Courts. Thirty-two-year-old Shawn Washington, who grew up in the impoverished housing project, wasn’t impressed.
Shawn Washington: We do not need a swimming pool over here in the Imperial Courts housing projects. We need training, mentoring programs so that we can try to save some of these youngsters in our community. A swimming pool is just to be cool. We need jobs.
Stoltze: Jobs and youth programs that last longer than the summer. Shortly after he spoke, a half dozen sheriffs’ squad cars pulled up and arrested a couple of young men. A sergeant said the men were suspected of selling rock cocaine.