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New Good Neighbors project connects USC students, local youths at ‘Unity House’

Left, the Unity House offers children a safe afterschool haven.

Last spring, the Occupational Therapy Department on the Health Sciences Campus was riding high on the success of its Good Neighbor project, “Project Clean SWEEP.”

In that partnership with the Salesian Boys and Girls Club of Boyle Heights, graduate students in occupational therapy offered teenagers prevocational training and community-building skills in weekly, small group sessions. The teens were taught how to be a good listeners, how to use resources to look for jobs in the community, as well as self-knowledge skills such as what type of work might appeal to them.

The project was such a success – approximately 80 adolescents and children benefited from the USC interaction and in follow-up interviews the effort earned rave reviews – that “we started looking for a way to expand the project and our role in the community,” said Carolyn Snyder, assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy.

That’s when she was introduced to Unity House, and a new USC Good Neighbors project came into being.

Back in 1995, Eastlake Avenue north of Mission Road in East Los Angeles was a haven for drug dealers. Residents didn’t go out after 9 p.m., said long-time resident Leovi Rios, or if they did, they went blocks out of their way to avoid the hooded teenagers who manned the street, sometimes armed with guns.

In July of that year, said Rios, a few residents met with a community outreach police group to warn them that something bad was going to happen if they didn’t do something. In late July, police shot and killed a 14-year-old boy who was one of the Eastlake Boys gang members. The shooting set off neighborhood rioting triggered by the gang.

Rios knew most of the residents were not happy with the situation and wanted to offer their children an alternative. After being approached by Brother Modesto Leon, a community leader and head of the Soledad Enrichment Action Project that helps at-risk youth throughout East Los Angeles, Rios went door-to-door the week after the incident, telling parents she was organizing a field trip to the downtown Los Angeles YMCA for the kids in the neighborhood, to get them out of the area and to offer them something beyond the gangs. Brother Modesto supplied the vans, and the first community outing was, Rios recalls, a success.

A few days after the field trip, she let parents know she was going to do art projects after school for kids in a park at the end of the block. She solicited food donations from local stores, fed the kids who showed up, and within a week had 74 youngsters coming to the park every day. When the city began construction at the park, she moved the group to her house – doing art projects in her driveway and fixing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in her kitchen.

In 1996, the city of Los Angeles purchased and donated what Rios said had been a run-down crack house in the middle of the block. “The house was terrible,” she recalls. “Needles. Holes in the wall. Just awful.” With donations and some help from the community, the house was restored and now serves as the site for Rios’s after-school programs. A colorful front porch sign proudly proclaims “Unity House.”

These days Rios struggles to keep Unity House, which is known as a gang-free safe-house that offers everything from tutoring to music lessons to arts and crafts projects for kids to parenting classes for their parents, open and running. Everything, from the teachers to materials to the food, is donated. The gangs still cruise the street – and the kids still witness crime and drug deals – but now, thanks to Rios, there’s some place they can play and learn after school where they are safe.

Thus came the idea for “Operation Safe House,” a USC Good Neighbors project that will spend some $30,000 over the next year bringing skill-building activities and vocational training to youngsters and adolescents at both Unity House and the original Project Clean SWEEP location, the Salesian Boys and Girls Club in Boyle Heights.

In the expanded program, 20 of the Salesian adolescents who participated last year, plus 20 new participants, will put together a community-building project next spring that will involve Unity House.

In addition, several O.T. students conducted projects at Unity House through the summer and are working there this semester and next, devising after-school projects for the kids, providing all the materials and even some tutoring. The projects are designed to enhance organizational skills, peer cooperation and leisure exploration. “My goal is to devise projects that get the kids working together, cooperating and having fun, ” said Harpreet Khandapur, a graduate student in occupational therapy.

On a recent afternoon, two dozen youngsters were doing just that under the guidance of Khandapur, O.T. graduate student Heidi Boltmeier and O.T. interns Victoria Abeleda and Patricia Reyes. On long tables set up in what was once the living room of the house, children aged 6 through 14 built Halloween mobiles from paper plates, colorful construction paper and yarn. “They have a lot of energy and creativity,” said Boltmeier as she helped one young girl string a witch onto the plate. “Completing the projects and hanging them here as Halloween decorations gives a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

Many of the students said it can be daunting at first, but they like the opportunity to conduct their clinical training in a project that is so new. “The enthusiasm for these projects is just awesome,” agreed Snyder. “It’s starting with nothing and creating something, rather than going into settings that are so highly structured.”

Another advantage of the Operation Safe House project is that it involves the larger community as well, noted Snyder, including Brother Modesto’s SEA organization and the L.A. County Probation Department. It also links two “safe houses” that are in close proximity to the Health Sciences Campus.

For now, Rios is just grateful to see the USC students – and to see how the kids are responding to the students. “They’re role models,” she said. “Having college students come in, talk to them, work with them, exposes them to things they would not normally see. It’s very positive, for everyone.”

New Good Neighbors project connects USC students, local youths at ‘Unity House’

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