Boys to Men Grant Buoys L.A’s Wooten Youth Center

Bill Howard
November 1, 1995

- LOS ANGELES

Myrtle Faye Rumph has a dream that some day her Al Woolen Jr. Heritage Center will multiply by 10 to offer more safe havens for the youths of South Central Los Angeles to play and learn after school.

"We used to have Teen Posts in every neighborhood staffed with a youth worker where teenagers could do arts and crafts and sports in the afternoon," recalled the 64-year-old founder and president of the center named after her son who was slain in a drive-by shooting in 1989. "All the recreation centers but one were shut down in the Reagan era. Ten of our centers would make a dent in the need."

Finding the money to finance such an enterprise, however, could be daunting in light of Rumph's own struggle to get her first center up and running in 1990 — and to keep on expanding it. But the slim, soft-spoken youth worker has a way of overcoming obstacles that shouldn't be underestimated.

At one point in 1991, for example, Rumph and her husband Harris revealed a measure of her determination to combat gangland slaughter of innocents. When her new youth center was running out of money, they sold the home they had owned for 13 years for cash to keep it going.

"1 never expected to retire. Something I have to do with the rest of my life is try to keep these killings from happening over and over," Rumph said in an interview at the center's quarters in an iron-grilled storefront that W.K. Kellogg Foundation Program Officer Bob Long calls "spartan." The building, in a block of run-down, graffiti-covered businesses, is only a short walk to fire and violence-scarred Manchester Boulevard, hub of the 1992 riots.

"From the start my vision was to provide a place for kid off the street — a place to play where they're comfortable, where they don't feel harassed or shot at, a place that can give them a lot of love and attention."

That vision arose from the devastating loss of her 35-year-old son by her first marriage. Al Woolen Jr. was walking home from a store with some friends in late January 1989 when he was hit in the stomach by bullets fired from a passing car. The assailants were never found and no motive ever determined for the slaying.

‘Taggers’ for Starters

A few weeks after the slaying, Rumph and her husband took a group of youngsters from a housing project to the local version of the Black Family Reunion celebration. She found herself overwhelmed by the way the kids responded to a little affection and attention and the idea for starting a youth center was born.

Rumph used her own money to rent a $500-a-month store next to her husband's furniture moving business that she helped manage. Members of the family formed a board of directors and chipped in $50 apiece every month to help meet expenses. Rumph's daughter Barbara Clark, a court reporter, became the treasurer.

The center opened with four boys aged 11 to 13 who were also "taggers" — graffiti artists — as the first attendees. Rumph, who had wanted to become a teacher but dropped out when she couldn't afford the bus fare to a segregated high school in Dallas and wished dishes at a restaurant instead, said she put the four to work painting the center and rewarded them with outings to a bowling alley. They were persuaded to give up their markers.

As more youngsters found their way to the center, Rumph discovered many couldn't read very well. "So I started a reading class and from that several more classes evolved," including math tutoring and basic computer literacy taught by volunteers.

Sudden Turning Point

By spring 1992, daily enrollment had built up to 25 students but the center was again almost out of money. It had used up most of the lone grant Rumph had managed to land. $5.000 from the Liberty Hills Foundation. Rumph, though, was getting word out about the center around town.

Then the riots struck. A bank branch and a store just a few doors away were torched but the center escaped untouched. None of her students were harmed or arrested.

A few days later Rumph received a call from Wall Street Journal reporter Sonia L. Nazario whom she had met earlier. The result: a front page article detailing Rumph's "volunteer effort" to stop the daily carnage on L. A.'s streets and how she was operating on a shoestring budget. Published in Journal editions across the United States and around the world, the story within days brought the center flood of donations.

More stories followed in People magazine, in the local papers, and on television. And more donations poured in allowing Rumph to move to a larger facility across the street to house more kids and to boost her annual budget to $160,000 as well as hire some youth workers.

More volunteers emerged, among them Beverly Hills clothing maker Shirley Jaffe and executives and employees of Rhino Records. Jaffe bought the center a van and brought her closest friends down to celebrate her 50th birthday in July 1992. She wanted them to see the devastation from the riots first hand. Several became contributors to the center.

Jaffe dressed as a clown for the occasion and made friends with the neighborhood. Since then, she has kept on helping the center and is now vice president.

Rhino Records, headed by Richard Foos, has also adopted the center, staging once-a-month activities for the youths that have included trips to museums, the beach, picnics, and the making of jewelry, tee-shirts and other crafts. This summer, Rhino financed $35,000 in improvements to make the center "child safe." Among them: expanding the computer room and paving the back yard for a basketball court and enclosing it with an eight-foot high fence.

More California foundations and corporations have come abroad as well. Rumph now has support from the Ahmanson, California Community, Ella Fitzgerald and Roth Family foundations and from AT&T, Shell Oil, and the Sumitomo Bank among others.

Kellogg Breakthrough

But the big breakthrough has been this year’s $150,000 grant from the Battle Creek Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation to launch a “Boys to Men” project. Executive director Jan’-Shams Abdul-Mu’min, who asks to be called simply Abdul, has also won a coveted Kellogg National Fellowship. He helped convince the foundation that the center was capable of finding 120 teenage African American boys from fatherless homes who could be linked up with strong male role models and helped to form lifelong goals and opportunities.

The two-year program includes remedial education and “working with Cal State LA to provide the college exposure we want these kids to have,” Abdul said, plus teaching parenting skills to their mothers.

“Mentors will be college students, businessmen, people who can identify with these young men who have done things in their life and, who on reflection, can say ‘I’ve made it and so can you.’ We’re not looking for lawyers and doctors. We’re looking for hard-working, roll-up-their-sleeves men to serve as role models—plumbers and locksmiths, bus drivers—men who the majority of young people will actually emulate if they a job at all.”

Recruiting of youths and mentors for the project began in October.

Quilt for Victims

Total enrollment at the center has risen to over 100 youths aged 8 to 18 and the still-fragile budget to above $200,000. About 40 attend daily classes conducted five days a week from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The center is open Saturdays for an array of activities. Helping the paid staff of six, including Rumph, are 40 to 60 volunteer youth workers. Actor Ron Glass, who serves as the center’s spokesperson, was instrumental in creating a “face-to-face” memorial quilt sewn at the center for the victims of violence. It is patterned after the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Composed of thirteen 18-by-30 inch panels, the first quilt features a panel Rumph create out of her son Al’s belongings when he was killed: a gold watch, gold earrings, a Statue of Liberty charm and $8 that was in his pocket the night he died. A second quilt has been completed and a third is underway under the guidance of Wooten volunteer Marylou Lamb, a retired fashion designer.

Exhibited around Los Angeles in museums and other public places, the quilts help publicize the center and bring in more donations.

One more sure sign the Wooten Center is maturing; three of its first students graduated from high school this year and one is attending college on a scholarship. The other two have college applications pending, Rumph said.

Abdul is eyeing the automatic ID card and educational incentive system developed by Bresee Youth and hopes to adopt it at the Wooten Center. He knows Bresee’s Jeff Carr, having joined him in a Eureka Fellowship program in 1994, and feels like a friendly competitor.

“Jeff has a distinct advantage being church-based with youth components built-in: the indoor gym, a kitchen, and other things that really can attract kids. It’s really, really great. But we are holding our own. We’re not going to give him all the credit. Tell Jeff we’re trying to take over the No. 1 spot in L.A.” he told an interviewer with a smile.

Now that some of the pressure is off financially, Faye Rumph has breathing room to think about the future. What is her goal? To create a second Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center. When? Perhaps, in the next five years, she says in her serene earth-mother manner, conveying the idea that its realization is all but inevitable. And with more to follow.

Resources:

M. Faye Rumph, President

Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center

9106 S. Western Ave.

Los Angeles, CA 90047

(213) 756-7203; FAX (213) 756-9159

Jeff Carr, Director

Bresee Youth Center

3401 W. Third St.

Los Angeles, CA 90020

(213) 387-2877; FAX (213) 385-8482


Howard, Bill. "Boys to Men Grant Buoys L.A’s Wooten Youth Center." Youth Today, November/December 1995, p. 25.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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