Lead Story West Edition

Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center steers youngsters away from gangs

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — The smiles greet you at the door.

The studious activity in the computer rooms suggests homework in progress. Outside on the basketball court, a game of hoops brings a spark of life to the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center.

And Naomi McSwain is in her office, quietly tucked out of sight, trying to come up with creative ways to better improve the recognized after-school refuge. Each day brings a different task for McSwain, executive director of the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center.

Some days, McSwain and her staff members at the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center (soon to be officially changed to Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center) act as a surrogate social buffer to students. On other days, she dips into the Psychology 101 playbook in trying to handle the emotional wrangling students come in with.

“When I go back to the beginning, our original focus was to get them off the street,” McSwain said. “In the early 1990s, that’s when gang violence was at its height here in Los Angeles, even worse than it is now.

“We just wanted to keep the kids from dying. We started off taking them on field trips, just to give them some place to go other than hang out.

“That’s all we were doing in the beginning,” McSwain added. “Then you meet the kids and saw all these other problems. Kids can grieve. They’re in the sixth grade and can’t read. We were like, we got to do more than just field trips. So we added on homework and tutoring.”

Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center Associate Director Christelle Telesford provides homework assistance to students during an afternoon at the after-school program.
(Photo by Dennis J. Freeman)

The Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center is more than just a run-of-the-mill after-school program for children between the third and 12th grades where playing games dominates the scene. With a CollegeTrek course, SAT workshops, tutoring and music lessons, the center is a lifeline to the 40 or 50 students who show up daily.

Fourteen-year-old Kenneth is one of those students. Kenneth, who says he has a hard time paying attention at times, has been coming to the center for the past six years.

“It helps me out with my work,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t listen. I take the hard way out.”

When his parents first put him in the after-school program, Kenneth said he struggled academically. Since coming to the center, Kenneth said there has been an uptick in his academic performance.

“It’s gotten better over the years,” he said.

Born out of the tragic circumstances of Myrtle Faye Rumph’s losing her son, Alton Wooten Jr., in a drive-by gang shooting, the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center has been a signature fixture over on Western Avenue in South Los Angeles for the past 27 years.

Two years after its inception, the center managed to survive the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It has grown since, going from a small storefront to a five-building enclave that fuels both achievement and academic success.

“For our youth, it’s not just about them coming and playing,” said Christelle Telesford, associate director at the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center. “We have a lot of fun, a lot of recreation; we’re very much academic. It’s truly about them passing and graduating, moving to the next grade, excelling in their academics.”

The Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center takes on a different meaning of importance for each student. Eleventh grade student Dimea enjoys coming to the center because of all the friends she has made. That’s not to mention her affinity for all the cool field trips students get to go on such as going to the beach and Knott’s Berry Farm.

“It’s fun,” Dimea said. “I like the field trips, especially in the summer. I’ve gotten to make a whole lot of new friends and see different people from different backgrounds and stuff, and learn how to not judge and be prejudiced.”

McSwain knows the kids who come to the after-school program like the back of her hand. That’s because she is one of them. She knows their stories because she has her own to tell.

McSwain knows firsthand about how peer pressure can get a student caught up into doing something he or she might regret. She’s been there and done that. Pushing drugs and participating in gang activity as a teenager, McSwain was taking a path to nowhere.

That one-way road toward reckless destruction forced McSwain to get it together, which she did. These days, McSwain is in the business of saving instead of throwing away. That starts with helping students avoid societal traps and trying to get them to move forward with their academic steps, McSwain said.

“After the gang truces, and more after-school programs, Los Angeles Unified School District adopting more after-school programs, we see the tide turning,” McSwain said. “Now you don’t see as much [gang homicides]. Even though we are heavily focused on education, gang prevention is starting to become more prevalent again. We define everything as gang prevention. Anything that we do that will keep the kids off the streets and out of gangs, is gang prevention.”