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Compassion + patience + art = hope for a teen father

By Daniel Heimpel, Contributing Writer

November 18, 2008 | 11:57 pm

For John, time is almost up before he leaves the foster care system

For John, time is almost up before he leaves the foster care system

She leans in to listen. Today's challenge is one of the many Dylan Kendall has helped John through in the last two-and-a-half years, and it won't be the last.

Kendall, 38 and not much over 5 feet tall, presses against the balls of her feet, craning to hear what the 6-foot-4 teen, who was once her foster child, is saying to his social worker. The two are framed by the doorway of her small office. Inside, her assistants hurriedly prepare a fundraiser. In the large adjacent room, homeless youth are taking a fashion-design class put on by Kendall's nonprofit.

John isn't saying much. At the other end of the phone line, his social worker cuts him off. He places his free hand atop his short gold-rust hair. "But Kathleen ...," he tries.

He hands Kendall the phone. "She hung up on me," John says. Kendall shakes her fire-red mane of hair. There is a warrant out for John's arrest. He missed a court date because a worker at his group home in Van Nuys told him he wasn't on the docket. And his social worker is unwilling to help.

He slouches into a chair pushed against the wall of the tight office. His blue eyes, often inscrutable, are sad. Everything is moving fast for him. Kendall touches his head tenderly.

Two weeks ago, John turned 18. Two weeks before that he was arrested for threatening to beat up a boy in his group home. And it has only been six weeks since his 19-year-old girlfriend gave birth to his baby. The arrest warrant is the most immediate problem. But looming greater is the day, coming soon, when he ages out of the foster care system and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) will terminate his case.

There are a few options for young people like John. There are a handful of private transitional housing programs, some vocational training, but only 384 DCFS beds for the 1,400 foster youth who walk out of Los Angeles County's care every year.

In the back parking lot of Kendall's Hollywood Media and Arts nonprofit, John lights up a cigarette. He is angry that his social worker hung up on him; that she gave up on him. "When I came back from jail I seen my social worker, and she said you're gonna be homeless and its gonna be your fault; not my fault, it's gonna be your fault. After that I just gave up. I said I'm done with DCFS. They are done with me, and I am done with them."

But while John's case is replicated by many of the thousands of other children who have passed through DCFS's gates, he's a lucky one. He has someone special in his corner. He has Dylan Kendall.

Kendall's life changed when she was 28, living in Oakland and working on her bachelor's degree at the California Academy of Fine Arts. She rented a cheap loft in a bad part of the city. Every day she woke up to poverty. She saw emaciated pit bulls and kids listlessly spending their days on the stoops of dilapidated homes. "Everyone has an epiphany movement," she says. Seeing the extreme poverty "began the process of me being less self-invested. And from that point on I sought out ways to make myself stronger, so I that I was able to effectively cause change against injustice."

Kendall is one of those people who can't stop giving, even when the odds seem impossibly against the causes she takes on. In the spirit of tikkun olam -- healing the world -- it's in her nature to invest in people.

Part of her self-divestment meant coming home to Los Angeles to study education at UCLA. Kendall, 38, says she was driven to make the world a gentler place. Raised by parents with strong Jewish traditions, Kendall came closer to her Judaism as she moved further from herself.

"I fundamentally believe that everyone should do something. If we don't, there are too many people that are hurting, and I don't like to see pain. That really frustrates me."

What she quickly found was that to alleviate hurt, people need safe places. For herself, Kendall could find safety and nourishment from a passage in the Torah, or a service at her synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood. For John, Kendall's presence and her openhearted offering to let him into her world was -- and is -- helping him build a life.

Back in her office, Kendall calls John's public defender. She looks for housing that will take in a good kid with a not-so-good record. She calls John's girlfriend, Karina, in South Los Angeles, and asks how the baby is doing. (Both teens have asked that their last names be withheld to protect their privacy.)

Kendall looks out through the Plexiglas separating her office from Hollywood Media and Arts' common area. Ten or more black, Latino and white homeless young men and women work on the computers Kendall raised the funds to buy. Behind a screen, past the monitors, another group is taking a class on mythology. And if you listen carefully enough, you can hear homeless youth banging on a drum set through the heavily padded walls of the studio on the second floor. For Kendall they are all important.

But the most important one is standing outside, looking at a hard road ahead, with a cigarette dangling from his lips.


Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles City Council President ) and Dylan Kendall (Hollywood Arts Executive Director) speak at "A Night of Magic and Inspiration" in 2006Building a Base:"I Have Your Back"

Kendall and John met two-and-a-half years ago, when her nonprofit, Hollywood Media and Arts, was still in its infancy. Before she secured the center's space on Hollywood and Wilcox, Kendall would take teachers out to transitional living facilities for the young and the homeless. Her idea was to use creative arts instruction as a way to help kids who had fallen through the cracks learn and feel accomplishment. At that time, Hollywood Media and Arts teachers were paid through grants that Kendall fought hard for. She leveraged the exposure of those classes as marketing tools to attract more teachers, more students and, importantly, more donors.

In 2006, Kendall was conducting one such class at the Way-In, a Hollywood-based housing facility for foster kids. It was there that she met John. "He was polite," she says. "Considerate. A good kid trapped in a hard situation. He reminded me of my best friend's son of the same age; a kid I had known since his birth. I couldn't imagine either kid not being able to just do kid things -- basketball camp, hang out at the mall."

What she didn't know then was that she was about to embark on a saga that would change her life, making her the most unlikely of grandmothers and teaching her the intricacies of a foster care and juvenile justice system that consistently fail at helping wards. Over those two-and-a-half years, Kendall's experience with John, paired with the simultaneous growth of her agency, has transformed her into one of the most effective advocates for the rights of this city's vulnerable and underserved cadre of young homeless. And it all started in a simple place that so many miss: Compassion.

"It was really always about giving this kid an opportunity to have a family," Kendall says of John. "And I thought I had an opportunity to help him do well."

But doing well was not so easy for a boy like John. By the time he met Kendall, John had already been put through the foster-system ringer. At 10 months he and his two older siblings had been removed by DCFS from parents addicted to methamphetamines.

John's first placement lasted 14 years with a woman, Ms. Willis, whom he says he loved. But his sister was kicked out of the house when she was 18, and, soon after, his brother put a gun in his pocket and tried to rob a store. John's brother is currently in prison, with a 2015 release date.

John recaps the escalation of abuse by Ms. Willis that reached a crescendo just as his siblings left his life. In the early days he called Ms. Willis mom. But by the time he was 14, John chose to go it alone. "When I was by myself, I said, 'You know what? I am done.'"

And done meant entering into the foster placement bounce. Like many foster youth, John laughs when asked to name all the places he has lived. His cynicism is one emotional survival tactic, common among homeless youth, like the ones Kendall serves every day.

"At the time, I just took everyone as a joke," John says. "I didn't take nobody serious. I didn't love nobody. I didn't care about nobody. I didn't trust nobody. That was my biggest thing. I didn't trust nobody."

When the 14-year placement with Ms. Willis ended, John says, "I was just, like, I'm not gonna let no one hurt me like this again. So when I first met Dylan, she was teaching a class at the Way-In. And like for some reason, with her, I took her seriously. I don't know why, because I didn't take anyone seriously like this.

"At the time I never knew it would turn out to where it would be me and Dylan living together. That we were gonna have this close relationship like we do now."

For her part, Kendall had saddled herself with two enormous challenges: raising a teenage boy and building a nonprofit organization. Over the next months, her bond with John grew. When a prior conviction forced John to move to Phoenix House, a juvenile rehabilitation facility in Lake View Terrace, Kendall made the trek from West Hollywood every weekend to see him, and because she knew he liked drawing, she gave him a cartoon-sketch book.

Soon the two had a little tradition. Every time she would come, John would show her his drawings.

"He glowed when he would show me those -- glow as if he were a younger kid," Kendall says wistfully. "That's what creativity affords us. It affords us a pretty nonjudgmental place to succeed."

And that is exactly where she was with Hollywood Media and Arts, as well. She saw a whole army of young people, underserved by a test-oriented education system that doesn't celebrate the little successes. John's glow was something Kendall was desperately working for with the increasing number of kids -- now in the dozens -- who came to the classes Hollywood Media and Arts was putting on in housing facilities like the Way-In, Covenant House and Teen Canteen.

"They need to learn in ways that cause a lot of success, which traditional [education] systems don't necessarily do," she says. "Testing creates a lot of opportunity for failure. Our goal is not to measure the amount they memorized. Our goals were to get them excited about learning in a safe environment, which can equal success."

Kendall says that her priority is to help that group of children who were raised without support systems -- parents, a safe home, school -- all the things that make up the scaffolding of one's life.

"With John, and all the kids, I always tell them, 'I have your back.' It is a really important thing for people without family, who don't intuitively think they have someone looking out for them."

But helping isn't always easy. And the scaffold she was building for John wasn't enough.

ALTTEXTTwo Steps Forward, One Step Back

By Thanksgiving last year, Kendall was exceedingly tired. Her successes came with heartbreaking failure. She had opened the Hollywood Media and Arts facility, its white walls full of new clean promise. But things with John were deteriorating fast.

"The one thing I couldn't do is be a full-time 100 percent parent," she says. With a growing agency, dozens of students, donor meetings and events, John started to feel Kendall wasn't there for him enough. "I could be a 60 or 75 percent parent. Which I thought would be good enough I guess. But I didn't understand the depth of his needs," Kendall says.

For John it was simple. He wanted her to himself.

"That was the main problem," he says. "She felt like I wanted to be on my own a lot, and do my own thing, but I felt like I wanted her there. She would work late sometimes, and I was like, 'Man where is she at? I need to talk to her,' or something like that -- it was just cool being able to talk to her and stuff.

"I'd sit there, and we'd have an intelligent conversation. Not just talking about girls and stuff. We talked about the randomest things. Global warming and stuff like that."

John, while soothed by gentle conversation, seethed when it was withheld. He had outbursts. Kendall searched out a non-DCFS therapist after being disappointed by the flighty ones that the department sent to her house. The idea was that she and John would go together. But he often refused.

"These kids, in particular, test emotional boundaries, because they are so habituated to being let down," Kendall says of John and the scores of homeless youth she sees every day at Hollywood Media and Arts. "To protect themselves, they attempt to get rejected before the rejection actually happens, because it is easier to handle. And that is something that John did."

In late November, John's "testing" reached a critical stage. Kendall wrote to a friend in an e-mail: "We're here in the throes of drama. He's alternatively crying (bawling, bawling), begging me to stay, throwing things around the house, and then he just called the police and asked them to come arrest him.

"Why? I talked to our therapist today, and she said to bring him in tonight to talk about what's going on. John didn't want to go. Then I said he'd made his choice. I asked him to do one thing for me (after he broke our five rules) so I calmly told him he was moving out. Heavy bawling -- I don't want to go, this is the only family I've ever had -- so I said, then prove it to me and go to therapy with me. No, I don't want to go. So I said, fine, you made your choice. Then he starts throwing things around. I remain calm. So he calls the police on himself. Then he's pacing, pacing. So I called his girlfriend, they spoke and now we are leaving in five minutes for therapy."

Despite the therapy session, the situation had gone too far. Kendall appealed to the DCFS for services to help her out. But this was during the holiday season, and the services never came. Kendall was exasperated, as an e-mail from that time illustrates: "I'm so emotionally exhausted, all I want to do is curl up into a little ball and cry."

By January, John was back in the system. "It's awful," she says looking back. The choice was Solomonic: either devote the time needed to help the waves of young adults who were now learning at her center or spend all her energy making the placement work for John. The two decided they couldn't live together. But Kendall wasn't out of his life.

"It would have been better if I stayed with her," he says. But he knows that despite the sincere affection they shared for each other, that would have been impossible.

ALTTEXTDaring to Hope

October 30, 2008, starts early for John. He is up at 6 a.m., determined not to miss his court date. He is filled with trepidation about what is waiting for him at Eastlake Juvenile Court. He calculates his chances as 85 percent to 15 percent. John thinks that the judge will probably drop the warrant as long as the group-home worker who told him that he wasn't on the docket comes into the court and testifies.

"But something I learned from my brother," he would later say, "is to always hope for the best and expect the worst."

By 9 a.m., it looks like things have taken that slide for the worse. John still hasn't left the group home. The workers are having a hard time coordinating the ride. When he finally leaves, crowds of young Latinos fill the courthouse waiting areas. Many have the three dots signifying the sprawling Southside affiliation of gangs tattooed into the soft skin between their thumb and index finger. Outside, a shield of clouds is set in sky, with the promise of rain to break up the singularity of the hot days that have followed summer through October.

Finally, at 10 a.m. John arrives. He has ironed his XXXL button-down shirt. He wears oversized black slacks and shiny patent-leather shoes. He is distraught. The group-home worker who promised to testify isn't with John. John is worried that he may be arrested. "What if they send me to county because I am a major?" he says. That was the first stop in a California jail tour for John's brother, Chris, now 20, who will sit in jail for the armed robbery he committed at 18. "I never want to end up there," John says.

John sits at the end of a long bench filled with other youths waiting to either have their records sealed or be sent to fire camp -- a modern chain-gang encampment for juveniles. His public defender, heavyset and stately with white hair and a suit, ushers John past the others and into the small courtroom.

From behind the bench the judge addresses John.

"John, this is your last gasp," he says. John's DCFS-appointed social worker has not shown up for the hearing and is instead patched through to the clerk by telephone. Through the clerk she tells the court that DCFS wants him terminated. She tells the judge that John has had a number of AWOLS from the group home. John shakes his head.

"Why are you shaking your head?" the judge asks.

"Because it's not true. I got the last AWOL cleared up because I went to Hollywood Arts to work on job applications," John says. He holds a print-out of more than 20 jobs he has applied for. The day before, John had written out a list of things he wanted to say to the judge and now he took his opportunity. "I am not trying to go to jail. I have a kid, and I want to be able to work and help provide for my son. I have an appointment with Job Corps on the 17th of November."

The judge listens gravely. "At this point, nobody is going to be patient with you," he says. And then the judge does the unimaginable. He squashes the warrant and terminates John's probation. Now John is eligible for Job Corps and half-dozen transitional housing programs that would have otherwise turned him away for having a record. John walks to the clerk's office, down a narrow hallway lined with other kids caught up in the system. He asks for the papers to seal his records, and at a table just outside the office he fills out the paperwork.

His face is red. "I can't f---ing believe it," he says. "I'm f---ing free."

He walks past the metal detectors, the door and outside. The clouds that held the promise of rain have broken. Heavy drops pelt the courthouse and clean the grime from the streets. John is elated. "This kind of good s--- doesn't happen to me. I can't believe it."

His first impulse is to call Kendall. "Dylan you won't believe it, the judge terminated my probation," he says proudly. He then tells her he's coming to see her at Hollywood Media and Arts.


Family

The next day is Halloween, and all John wants to do is see his baby, Adrian. Buoyed by the previous day's good news, he travels from Van Nuys to Hollywood and Vine, where he walks a few blocks to Kendall's Hollywood Media and Arts center. He and Kendall climb into her old coupe with Adrian's baby seat in the back and head to 81st and Figueroa streets, where Karina lives.

The house is filled with Karina's family members. Karina's mother and the women of that generation and older are in the kitchen preparing a feast for the next day to celebrate one of the children's birthdays.

Kendall is quick to grab the baby and pushes her face into the soft skin of his neck. She pets his hair and smiles. John smiles too.

The four settle onto large couches, as other children and toddlers walk in and out of the living room. Kendall and John trade off holding Adrian. He is dressed in the Tigger [from "Pooh's Corner"] Halloween costume Kendall bought for him. John pulls back the hood and touches his son's head. He has the same hairline as his young father. Karina flips the channels. The four sit. Family. Kendall -- the beaming grandmother.

On the way back to the group home, Kendall and John stop by a Mexican restaurant on Van Nuys Boulevard. John talks about his future. About Job Corps. About learning car mechanics and buying a clunker that he can fix up to drive Karina and Adrian around.

Kendall is stoic but supportive. "The one thing I've learned to do with John and my kids at Hollywood Arts, which makes it easier, is to take it absolutely one day at a time. If we have a success, that is great and we build on it. And if we have a failure, it's not so big of a deal because we take it only one step at a time."

Nothing is certain. John is aware of the challenges he faces. He sees it every day, in group homes where parentless kids fight; on the streets of Hollywood, where kids not much older than John hustle and scratch to survive. He knows the justice system, Juvenile Hall, three-dot tattoos and a brother who will spend most of his 20s behind bars.

John knows life is not going to be easy, but he also knows that with Kendall, Karina and Adrian, he has been given the one thing so many other foster kids simply don't have.

"I used to think I could do everything on my own," he says. "I used to think I'd be fine by myself -- but I know I need a support system. Man, do I need a support system."

Kendall places her hand on John's. Even if today is good and tomorrow bad, she is there. She always will be.



This story is part of research that Daniel Heimpel is conducting for a book on the foster care crisis in America. Click for more information on Dylan Kendall and Hollywood Media and Arts.

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