A Helpline for Youth in Long Beach

By Jessica Portner
California Health Report

On one bright summer evening, a counselor, Nathaniel San, is talking to a group of teens and preteens packed around two tables in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in Central Long Beach. His summertime lessons in the high-crime neighborhood aren’t about the mechanics of math or the intricacies of biology. They are about managing anger by converting negatives into positives, thinking before doing, and knowing the consequences of one’s actions.

“This is a safe zone,” San said to the group. “Ask for a time out if you are upset. There’s no need to hold that in.”

The eight-week anger management class for youth, part of Long Beach’s Summer Night Lights programs in neighborhood parks, is offered by Helpline Youth Counseling, the largest youth services provider in Southeast Los Angeles County. In the last year, the agency provided comprehensive educational, case management, counseling, skill building, and treatment services to more than 6,700 children, youth, and adults. Most of these services were offered through schools in the region, but an additional 6,885 people were offered assistance through the agency’s Community Helpline Hotline for adults and teens in crisis. HYC has been holding anger management groups in Long Beach for more than a decade.

The youth who arrive at HYC’s anger-management classes take many different routes. Some might have been referred by the city of Long Beach, schools, probation departments, or children and family services. Others might find out about the class through Boys and Girls Clubs or other community organizations.

“Most of the young people we see in the anger management program are middle or high school students on the path to school failure,” said Jeff Farber, HYC’s executive director. “They have gotten to a place where they are in anger-based action, whether it’s fighting on campus or being defiant in school.” Farber said the kids who come to these classes haven’t always had all the support or advisors who can give them the guidance they need to navigate effectively in society as adults.

“They all have a world of values to bring, but that has been clouded over by their behavior and their actions,” Farber added. “Most people haven’t been able to see that light in them.”

The 8-week curriculum call “Social Learning Lessons” is intended to help young people do some self-examination. The first lesson is on “self talk,” which is described as “a battle going on in your head about saying yes or no to someone or something you should or should not do.” Other lessons are about “Thinking Before You Act” or “Changing What Matters Most to You.” Lesson 8 ticks off examples of self-centered thinking:

  • If I see something, I take it.
  • If I lie to people, that’s nobody’s business but my own.
  • If I want to do something, I don’t care if it is legal or not.
  • When I get mad, I don’t care who gets hurt.

That lesson goes on to ask participants to name someone who might have shown this kind of thinking, and then describe how it made them feel to be around them. These classroom lessons are only part of the curriculum, however. HYC also builds in life skills lessons by taking the youth on trips or activities, from visiting universities to learning how to sail.

Karen Wyatt-Coleman, HYC’s director of community services, understands exactly what these kids are up against. When the young people start wriggling in their plastic chairs and eyeing the park outside, San suggests that Wyatt-Coleman share her own harrowing personal story with them. She told the group about how her alcoholic father abused her mother, how her brother, a drug dealer, was shot and killed, and that she had herself been in a gang as a teenager. She also told them that she had been a victim of repeated abuse while growing up.

“I never cussed at my Mom, I was a compliant kid, but she used to beat me, breakfast lunch and dinner,” Wyatt-Coleman said, adding, “The one thing that changed my life was a counselor at school.” This counselor helped her get a part-time job and a spot on the high school varsity basketball team and was a tremendous support.

Though she had never been outside of South Central Los Angeles, she went to college at Chico State University and graduated in social work. The only way to help another person with their anger, she said, is to share your story. “We have to entice you to be honest with yourselves,” she said to the group. “Smart mouths have some anger behind them.”

By the end of the story, the once-restless adolescents were attentive and a little surprised.

“The story was great. It made me want to turn my life around,” said DeShawn Hunter, a tall 16-year-old, who once received community service for being in a fight at school. “I could be a real hothead.”

DeShawn’s said he had relatives who were gang members who had been shot and killed. The teenager said he was easy to provoke as a result of the violent environment and pressures at school. He expects that the anger management training will help him become more calm and hopefully lead him further towards his goals of going to college, becoming a massage therapist, or a professional football player.

“Nobody should commit a crime and everyone should be real positive,” DeShawn said, “If they had that, that would change their whole life.”

Romié, a 15-year-old who preferred not to give her last name, said she wanted to come to the class to avoid bad influences in her Long Beach neighborhood.

“I didn’t have anything planned except staying in the house and I wanted to go somewhere,” she said. “It’s easy to get in trouble out there. There are a lot of gang members and bad people in the world, and I am just trying to stay away from them.”

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