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SEA still saving at-risk youths

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The stories are similar, with only subtle life differences.Andrea Webb, 21, dropped out of Woodland Hills’ Taft High School in ninth grade. “It was too far, and I guess I wasn’t ready to sit in a classroom full of people,” she explains. “I wasn’t a very sociable person.”Jefferson High School would no longer accept Erika Rangel, 23, because she was “gang affiliated.” Then she dropped out of Canoga Park High School, to where she was bused, and took up gangbanging fulltime until she got “locked up.”Jenny Duran, 21, got kicked out of Belmont High School in Los Angeles for “ditching” classes or not going to school at all. “Many of the counselors were trying to help me, but I still wouldn’t pay attention,” she confides. “They had meetings with my parents, but I didn’t like school, and I was using.” Tony Monroy was having “trust issues” from the start at Cabrillo High School in Long Beach. He wouldn’t speak to anybody who wasn’t part of his tight group, and was totally into gangs, drugs and partying. “We were all ninth-graders, you know,” says the now 20-year-old. “And the only reason why I would go to school is so that my friends wouldn’t get overwhelmed by other gangs, ’cause that’s how serious it was.”Flor Gonzalez, 23, got kicked out of many schools, including Lynwood High School. With her heavy drug problem, there were overdoses, followed by stays in detox and rehab centers. She wound up living in a foster home, “and then no other high school wanted to take me in.”Marlyn Martinez, 19, officially attended John C. Fremont High School for two years. But she would do drugs in the morning before going to school. And then around sixth period, she’d head out to the PE field and just smoke dope with her friends. “Nobody really cared,” she says. “There was only this one teacher who asked, ‘What are you, like, planning to do in five years?’ And I just told him, ‘Live by the day.’ Because I wasn’t looking forward to the future. ’Cause I was just surrounded by gangs, violence. I was used to getting jumped.”Jennifer Portocarrero, 20, says her story was like almost everyone else’s. At Fairfax High School, she wasn’t going to classes. But she was selling drugs. The combination eventually got her into big trouble.‘Throwaway kids’The seven young adults are sitting around the cramped Los Angeles central office of SEA (Soledad Enrichment Action, Inc.) on a recent late Friday afternoon munching on snacks. All are former students at one of the alternative high school’s 18 sites in the County of Los Angeles, except Marlyn, who says she’s still a “work in progress” at SEA Firestone in South Los Angeles.The program, which now employs about 250 teachers, social workers and even a psychotherapist, started when two mothers in East L.A. lost sons to gang violence. They approached Claretian Brother Modesto Leon at Our Lady of Soledad Church in 1972. The top priority of the “Concerned Mothers,” as they came to call themselves, was establishing an alternative safe school system to stop the high dropout rate that fed an ongoing gang epidemic of street violence. Today, SEA’s charter high school enrolls nearly 4,000 students, mostly ages 14 to 18, every year. Some 77 percent complete the highly individualized curriculum at small campuses ranging from Compton to Hollywood, Norwalk to North Hills and Pacoima to Pomona.And the adolescents SEA accepts usually face overwhelming challenges such as severe poverty and drug use as well as coming from single-parent or abusive families. Many also have already had run-ins with the law and even been in juvenile halls or camps. “These are very high-risk kids,” says Sister Ines Telles, co-executive directress of SEA. The Sister of St. Joseph of Corondelet has worked at the burgeoning social service agency for 23 years. “Many come from youth camps, some with their probation officers. Either they’ve been kicked out of every school and we’re their last chance, or they’re on drugs or whatever. “Nobody wants them,” she stresses. “They themselves many times describe themselves as ‘throwaway kids.’”To address these challenges, the charter school provides extensive wrap-around services, including mental health counseling, substance abuse programs, teen pregnancy prevention, job readiness skills training plus gang prevention and intervention. In addition, as an offshoot of its Youth Peace Movement (YPM), SEA has created youth groups of peace guided by a mentor at the various school sites. Each site’s community service project is based on one of the 10 “Global Calls to Action” developed by 10 Nobel Peace laureates. And three of these laureates — Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Jody Williams and Arun Gandhi, the fifth grandson of Mahatma Gandhi — have been keynote presenters at SEA’s end-of-the-year Peace Conference, respectively, in 2010, 2011 and 2012 in Los Angeles.Five alumni members of YPM, along with Sister Telles and another SEA staffer, were invited to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for two weeks in June as “Peace Ambassadors.” The group’s purpose was to help create a peace movement among youths who had been brutalized in the recent Congo War as child soldiers. SEA is most known for serving at-risk youths at its wide-ranging alternative school sites. But since its early 1970s roots in East L.A., the nonprofit has continued its holistic approach by also reaching out to the parents of these troubled teenagers. Today, “Parents Helping Parents” — a 20-week course designed for mothers and fathers of high-risk sons and daughters — is popular and taught by parents. Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law SB298. The reauthorization bill extends SEA’s charter school status until 2018. A second chanceGoing around the room again, the seven readily agree that SEA has changed their lives. They have gone from ditching high school and seeing no future for themselves to believing in whole new possibilities. Like Erika Rangel, whose probation officer referred her to South Central SEA at 1037 East 34th Street. She was 16. Three years later she graduated with a high school diploma.“SEA helped me tremendously,” she says. “I mean, they provided me with hope, you know, and just overall a lot of support for me to believe in myself. Overall, I learned that there’s no limits to pursuing your true happiness and your dreams.”When asked what was different about SEA from the two other high schools she attended, but was expelled from and dropped out of, the 23-year-old woman doesn’t hesitate. “Just the staff,” she answered. “They’re very dedicated to what they do. You know, they’re very supportive. They don’t let you fall through the cracks. They really focus on each student and meeting their goals. They really emphasize education and give us a second chance.” Erika just landed a fulltime job as YPM and alumni secretary at SEA. But her career goals are to be either a psychologist or sociologist, or maybe even go into the criminal justice field. She plans to return to college next year. “I’ve been a mentor here before and like working with kids,” she points out.Just before Tony Monroy got kicked out of Cabrillo High School for being into gangs and drugs, a counselor told him about a local SEA school site. Some friends went to SEA, so the teenager decided to try it. Still, he only lasted 30 days in 2007. The next year, however, SEA gave him a second chance, and he graduated in 2010.“With the staff actually speaking to me, that started me opening up to them about my personal life,” he reports. “And I started attending certain programs that actually, you can say, changed my mentality and my way of thinking. I joined the leadership training program at SEA. I got into the Atlantic Recovery Services, which is drug and alcohol counseling. And I also got into the Youth Peace Movement.“And, it’s like, that took me out of my zone,” he explains. “It actually introduced me to a different lifestyle. My family was homeless at the time, and people at SEA helped us get into Section 8 housing. That was a real big blessing. After that, I just thought about all the stuff I had caused my family and then all the love that SEA had showed me.”Now Tony works in SEA’s after-school program and goes to Long Beach City College. The 20-year-old also likes working with kids and is thinking about becoming a child counselor.“So that’s why I still am here as part of SEA, being an alum and peace ambassador, because of what they’ve done for me,” he adds. “I am actually who I am ’cause of SEA.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/1207/olasea/{/gallery}

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