Through Crossroads, at-risk youth find route to productive lives

November 15, 2014


Until three months ago, Juan Flores, just 19, was already living a life of regret.

"I was at home, doing nothing, going nowhere. I wanted to get a high school diploma, get a job, even go to college, but I just wasn't making the effort," says Flores, who lives in Compton, a city in southern Los Angeles County notorious for gang violence. "Instead I was hanging out with the wrong crowd — not drinking or doing drugs, but just going to the beach, playing video games, doing everything except school."

High school film class
A high school film class group huddles with a teaching artist Daniel Eduvijes Carrera, shown center rear, at the Southern California Crossroads first youth film screening held June 28 at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, Calif.

Fast forward 90 days and Flores says he is now "changing my life for the better — learning new things, meeting new friends and not wasting my time anymore."

Flores attributes the upturn in his life's prospects to Southern California Crossroads, a youth intervention program that seeks to help at-risk 18- to 24-year-olds achieve healthy, peaceful and productive lives. It does this by assisting the participants in setting and achieving goals, such as advancing their education, training for or applying for a job and seeking sobriety.

Founded in 2005, the program is the brainchild of Paul Carillo, injury prevention coordinator and a member of the trauma services team at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, Calif. "St. Francis is one of the top three hospitals in Los Angeles County when it comes to treating patients with penetrating wounds," explains Carillo. "Our service area includes neighborhoods experiencing high rates of racial violence, significant poverty levels, low rates of high school graduation and many undocumented families afraid of taking advantage of community resources."

Life planning
Tired of simply treating victims of violence, Carillo says he aspired to begin a program that could help teens and young adults overcome obstacles to success by giving them the tools to identify alternatives to the actions and attitudes that perpetuate hostilities.

With the help of the hospital's foundation, he secured funding and space near the medical center campus to launch Southern California Crossroads as a prevention and intervention program, targeting ex-offenders, victims of violence and high school dropouts as participants. Carillo doubles as director of Southern California Crossroads.

By passing out flyers in the community and with the help of case managers who visited trauma patients at St. Francis, Carillo recruited 75 participants the first year to join the program. Carillo, two case managers and a career development specialist interviewed each participant and provided each with an individual service plan. The plans include taking part in appropriate classes ranging from GED instruction and driver's education to vocational training, parenting, restorative justice, substance abuse programs, mentoring and more.

Film therapy
The number of clients served soon doubled to 150, and another component — a therapeutic film program begun in 2011 — has now increased enrollment to 200, including area middle school and high school students as well. Southern California Crossroads runs the film program in partnership with the Tribeca Film Institute, which was founded in New York City by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff.

"Though our younger students come from the same streets and neighborhoods as our 18- to 24-year-olds, they are recruited because they are excelling academically," says Carillo. "Belonging to an after-school or weekend film club is seen as not only a privilege but also a way to get hands-on experience that can help prepare them for a possible career in moviemaking."

The cinematography classes for both Southern California Crossroads participants and middle and high school students are instructed by teaching artists from Tribeca who help with development of story lines, filming, editing and production. The goals for each of them are the same: to produce public service announcements, or PSAs, that tell neighborhood or personal stories that address the prevention of violence.

Building on success
Fernando Lopez, 17 and a senior at Lynwood High School, is now in his third year of the film program. "It's the perfect creative outlet for me; I took acting classes when I was younger, and I've always had a passion for the movies," he says. "I've done two PSAs so far — one is an homage to my community and the other is about a girl who has to learn to express her emotions when her best friend dies."

The club has not only given Lopez a long-term career path — he hopes to attend California State University, Long Beach, to study filmmaking — but it has also resulted in short-term jobs already.

"Because of this program, I did an acting job on a police training video," says Lopez. The second youngest of five siblings — none of whom has attended college yet — he says that his mother "believes in my dreams and goals, and supports me all the way."

Producing change
The most important aspect of the film program, Carillo says, is the annual public screening that is held at St. Francis and features all of the participants' work.

"The films bring the community together, help to involve the families and raise awareness of everything from cultural differences to bullying, gangs and drug use," he says.

Flores says the cinematography class has been one of his favorite parts of Southern California Crossroads. "I'm making a PSA about doing the right thing; if you see something going wrong, how to avoid or fix the problem," he says. "I'm learning a lot from it, and it's very entertaining."

But entertainment is only a small aspect of Southern California Crossroads. Carillo says there have been a lot of successes for the program — rising rates of participants receiving high school diplomas, increases in participation in employment service programs and, perhaps most important, dramatic reductions in rates of recidivism.

"Our focus is not only on prevention and intervention but also reentry services," he says. "We are hoping to expand and serve more young people in southern Los Angeles County, as well as introduce more prevention efforts through the schools."

Mission outreach
His vision is definitely shared by St. Francis, according to Mary Lynne Knighten, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer there.

"Our mission is to serve a vulnerable population, and this outreach program helps us with that care," she says. "Our community is hard-working but faces many obstacles in terms of poverty, broken families and educational barriers. That, plus the fact that an estimated 58 to 91 percent of those in our primary service area have Spanish as their primary language, leads to lower access to health care and higher stress in terms of population health."

Knighten adds that at St. Francis, former patients and family members of trauma victims are part of an advisory council for the hospital. "We stress an equal partnership between the community and hospital staff to improve not only care but public safety," she says. "Southern California Crossroads, under Paul's leadership, helps us to help people better their lives."

PSA videos created by students profiled in the story:

Ready to Join a Gang?
Hopes, Dreams and Balloons
Show and Tell (Bullying)
Gun Violence Documentary

Hospital coalition acts to prevent violence in Los Angeles
In addition to Southern California Crossroads, Lynwood's St. Francis Medical Center's trauma department has been instrumental in efforts to develop a second intervention program, Hospitals Against Violence Empowering Neighborhoods, or HAVEN.

Created in 2011, HAVEN is a coalition of Southern California hospitals and community organizations that seek to address violence, rather than just treat injuries, according to Paul Carillo, injury prevention coordinator and member of the trauma services team at St. Francis.

"We envision it as a way to rally hospitals to work together and share best practices in areas like gang prevention or screening for domestic violence," he says.

To date, HAVEN's most effective outreach, Carillo says, is the L.A. Gang and Prevention Intervention Program, a conference, now in its third year, that draws 600 participants over two days from the participating hospitals to help share in the responsibility to address violence before ambulances carrying trauma victims arrive at area hospitals.

"It just makes sense to be proactive, and to network with each other, to try to make our communities safer for everyone," he adds.

— Renee Stovsky


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