Jewish Journal

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 2006

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