Causes Have Effects on Teens

Eric Sondheimer
January 19, 2005

Tim Coffeit, a volleyball player at Los Angeles Loyola, works as a teacher's aide at a shelter for battered women and children.

By the end of his first week, several of the youngsters were calling him "Daddy."

"We're kind of their protectors," he said.

For three weeks this month, 291 seniors at Loyola have been excused from classes and given a break from homework so they can complete an 85-hour community service requirement needed to graduate.

At more than 70 sites throughout Los Angeles County, they became tutors and teaching assistants, working at schools, shelters, hospitals and hospices.

Many of the students were athletes trained to be the best. Suddenly, they encountered people who were ill, injured, poor, illiterate or helpless.

Patience was tested, assumptions were challenged and prejudices confronted.

During his service at the shelter, Coffeit learned that children sometimes have flashbacks of violent episodes. Others respond with little emotion when recalling horrendous incidents.

"Oh, Daddy gave Mommy a black eye yesterday," Coffeit recalled matter-of-factly, as an example. "Oh, Daddy only pulls out his gun when he gets mad."

Even when his day is finished, Coffeit is reluctant to abandon the children.

"When I leave, I don't want to leave," he said.

Jack Lawson, a track athlete at Loyola, spent five days a week sleeping and working at a homeless shelter. One of his jobs was to interview people seeking a place to sleep.

"You find out so many of them are so educated and could go somewhere in life but have come upon hard times, sometimes out of their control," he said.

"There's a certain respect you have for these people. You hear, 'Oh, this homeless person is on drugs. It's their choice. I have no responsibility to help them out. It's what they want to do.'

"I have never been told so many times not to do drugs and not to drink, working with them."

Christopher Moore, a tennis player who's considering a career in medicine, worked at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica as a patient escort.

He spent some time with elderly patients in a critical-care unit who had "do not resuscitate" orders at their bedside.

He walked in one day from lunch in the middle of a code blue, when doctors were frantically trying to revive a patient in cardiac arrest.

"It's real depressing at times," he said. "It opens my eyes and gives me a new understanding. It's things I never get to see at school or in my everyday life."

William Burge, a safety on the Cub football team, worked with severely autistic children at a child services center. He tutored a 12-year-old boy named Jeremy, and his football speed came in handy.

"Jeremy likes to run out the door," Burge said. "I got to grab him."

Time and again, Burge tried to reach Jeremy with seemingly the simplest of assignments, such as writing his name.

"It's hard because Jeremy can't talk back and you can't get mad at him because it's not his fault," Burge said. "When you're trying to get him to write his name and he won't, it's tough."

Students screamed and yelled, which intimidated Burge. One student tried to bite him. It was all part of trying to understand what's happening in the mind of an autistic child.

"I won't be afraid to go up and give them a high-five or hug," Burge said of his experience. "I won't walk away or ignore them. I realize they're no different, minus the communication difference."

Daniel Breen, a high jumper, said he was exhausted at the end of each day while serving as a patient escort at UCLA Medical Center. All he did was pass out newspapers and talk to sick patients.

The emotional toll registered in ways he could never have imagined. While much of what he witnessed was disturbing, he also saw people with determination to keep living.

"It's inspiring to see how enduring the human spirit can be," he said. "They have nothing, but you can see a fire in their eyes. They want to get better."

High schools throughout Southern California, private and public, have put together community service programs, but the Loyola Senior Project, in its 24th year, is one of the few that allows students to skip classes so they can devote full focus to their chosen assignments.

"It's where they meet people who aren't like them," said Tom Zeko, the program coordinator. "It develops responsibility and a perspective that touches their head and heart. It's another exercise of power. They're challenged how to lead for good."

The students pick their assignments in consultation with Zeko, who wants to challenge their comfort level.

"We talk about getting out of the bubble," he said.

Bill Thomason, Loyola's principal and a former basketball coach, said athletes and others come back from the experience with a changed outlook.

"They get an education we can't duplicate in the classroom," he said. "All of a sudden, they run a little harder, they don't complain as much."

Buchi Awaji, a basketball player, provided one-on-one tutoring for a Spanish-speaking fourth-grader at an elementary school. His patience was tested because the boy lost focus. One day the boy told him a story.

"He told me he went home and got a call," Awaji said. "His dad died in El Salvador. He started crying ? and I was asking him why he wasn't doing his multiplication tables."

Casey Frost, the school's standout quarterback, was a teacher's aid at a predominately Latino elementary school.

"Being a black male, it's not what I'm used to being around every day," he said. "Any prejudice you might have beforehand gets erased.

"The fourth- and fifth-graders aren't people I'm going to hang out with on the weekend, but they put a smile on my face and I put one on theirs."

Working as a student aid at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, miler Paul Kwon was initially uncertain about his task of helping blind adults.

"I thought I had to be more cautious and double-check everything," he said. "It's nothing like that at all. They're regular people. I shouldn't take into account their blindness as a disability. They accept it, and I should accept it too."

On Friday night, the community service project ends with a reflective session and ceremony at Loyola.

There will be no final exam, only hope that the students' experiences taught them how to use power and influence in a positive way.