La Verne Magazine
ULV Alumnus Dedicates Life to At-Risk Youth
by Jeanette M. Neyman
photography by Jason Cooper
Greg James' program has been criticized for casting spiritual overtones
on its participants. He believes that lessons taught through church help.
at-risk youth who would otherwise be doing something detrimental or endangering.
Popular or not, God is a part of James' program.
As he takes the pulpit, the choir hums behind him. "You need to
know the truth," he says, his voice vibrating with emotion. "We
are doing things probation can't even believe."
With growing intensity he continues, "But you have to step up.
Step up and get involved with the children of our community"
Holding up his 3-year-old son, Taylor, he bellows, "I have commitments
too. But you got to quite counting your money and fix your schedule."
With the magnetism and charisma of a natural orator, Gregory James,
a 36-year-old who sports a 6'1" athletic build, close shaven haircut
and trimmed moustache, appears more like an evangelistic television preacher
than a deputy for the Los Angeles County Probation Department.
If James seems zealous, it is only because he has been there. Growing
up in gritty South Central Los Angeles, he was surrounded by poverty and
exposed to crime, drugs and violence that lead many youth astray.
Fortunately, he was taken under the wing of a kind elementary school
teacher who saw great promise in him while he recited an essay about Jackie
Robinson during an African-American Month assembly. She permitted James
to use her home address to attend a more affluent school.
"It allowed me to see another existence," James says with
conviction. "When I was 10 years old a guy pulled up behind me on a
mo-ped and put a gun to my head, then stole my radio. These are things that
happen everyday in the hood. When these kids walk to school there are drug
pushers on the corner, prostitutes, crooks-you name it."
So at the tender age of 11, James began his three-hour, round trip,
zigzagging through urban Los Angeles cities to Hollywood via public transportation.
His academic progress increased. He excelled in athletics, serving as team
captain and playing middle linebacker for the Hollywood High Sheiks football
team. James also became interested in the theater-a passion that would direct
him to play a lead role in the University of La Verne production of "Our
Town," and a bachelor's degree in theater.
"La Verne is an exceptional campus, in that I never felt there
was any prejudices toward people of color. I immediately felt like I was
home. Like I fit in," James confesses.
During the church service he descends the stage and lets his "kids"
"Take pride in your life. Stay away from crime, 'cause crime don't
pay," a young man raps.
"We ain't showing no weakness," shouts the rest of the group,
comprised of tattoo-clad youths wearing everything from dresses and tuxedo
shirts with bow ties to baggy blue jeans and T-shirts.
A nervous 11-year-old takes the microphone and begins reciting his personal
essay. "My goal is that when I grow up there will be no drugs, no gangs,
no -." He chokes up and stops. It doesn't seem as though he may continue,
but the Ensemble members pat him on the back and murmur words of encouragement.
"No tagging," he continues. "And people will respect each
At the end of the program, members of the congregation embrace the youths
and praise their participation in changing their life. "I am so proud
of these young people," says Reverend Alvin Tunstill Jr., pastor of
Trinity Baptist Church in Los Angeles. "It takes a lot of courage to
pull yourself up when society expects so little of you."
Begun by James in 1993 , the Community Honors Drama Ensemble, of which
the boys and girls are members, was conceived when James worked as a probation
officer at Camp Afflerbaugh, a juvenile rehabilitation camp in the La Verne
foothills. Thus far, more than 500 young men and women have participated
in the program, which has now grown into four separate chapters, spanning
the entirety of Los Angeles County. The Ensemble consists of juvenile offenders
currently incarcerated or on probation who create, write, direct and choreograph
productions with anti-gang, anti-violence, anti-drug messages in skits,
songs and speeches presented to the community. Each year, the Ensemble impacts
more than 8,000 youths at different schools throughout Los Angeles County.
Aside from personally mentoring and inspiring these young people, James
also raises money and lobbies for the program. When he approached the Los
Angeles Times for a grant, they did not want to give him money.
"They said we had spiritual overtones and that they didn't advocate
any religious groups," James confides. "But the bottom line is
that our program works and the opposite consequence is devastating."
James received the grant and is currently the only deputy with a van
dedicated to his program. Throughout the week, he picks up incarcerated
youth from Camp Afflerbaugh and other locations and drives them all over
Los Angeles County to speak out against gangs, drugs and violence.
Kenneth, a 16-year-old incarcerated member of the Ensemble praises James
for his leadership and love. "He's real. He's my role model. I had
to get locked up to find myself. I was arrested for bringing a firearm to
school. There is no telling what I would have done. But I learned from Deputy
James that you got to lead your own way," he says.
"I didn't like gang banging," Kenneth says a little more quietly.
"I was a follower. Now I follow a good example and try to be a leader
by setting a positive example to keep the younger generation going, because
they are looking up to us. It's not enough to just know what's right, you
have to do what's right."
Although the Ensemble has had a record of success, James is not devoid
of his critics. In March his former supervisor, Carl Lewis, ordered James
to cease and desist his work with the Ensemble.
"Speaking from a professional level, spiritual overtones are out
of place," Lewis retorts. "When you are talking about building
character of boys, spirituality is an important part, but they may be Muslim,
Jewish or whatever. Religion is personal and you need to save that for church
Lewis can cite other programs that have also had success and he says
the "mentoring" aspect of the programs are what make them successful.
"You don't need to bring religion into the program to show kids
that you care about them and to provide good role models," he asserts.
"The probation officer is an official under the scope of the department
and he has to follow the rules of organization, which separates church from
state." He adds, "That's the gig. If one of our officers wants
to make it into something else, let them become social workers. You hear
what I'm saying?"
Lewis does admit that the Los Angeles County Probation Department is
seeing that there is a need for probation officers to be in the community,
not sitting behind a desk. He further concedes that although he doesn't
necessarily agree with James' approach, he says, "Gregory is a good
hearted man, trying to make a difference with these kids. He's committed,
making personal sacrifices and working real hard. He's the guy on the street
working with them."
Shortly after, James transferred to another program within the probation
department to continue his prevention and outreach work. His time spent
with the Ensemble is primarily extracurricular, demanding long evenings
and forfeited weekends.
Whether one agrees with James' spiritual approach or not, few can argue
the program's success. "The numbers don't lie," James says.
The Honors Drama Ensemble graduates recidivism rate is 10 percent, according
to a study done by the Los Angeles Probation Department. The average Los
Angeles County recidivism rate is five times higher. For every youth who
leaves the system, more than half return within one year.
According to a study conducted by the bureau chief of Residential Treatment,
the County of Los Angeles pays $86.77 to incarcerate one youth for one day,
resulting in a cost of $31,671.05 a year.
Of the 79 youths who have graduated from the probation division of the
Ensemble, only eight re-entered the system, saving taxpayers more than $560,000,
when compared with the Los Angeles County average.
"By intervening in the lives of children we shape future role models
and prevent future crime," says Dolores Gulley, executive director
of community development for the Fountain of Love Church in Pomona, which
houses a chapter of the Honors Ensemble. "I have seen boys from families
of gang-bangers and ex-cons change their lives and then bring their younger
siblings in to be mentored. That's how we know that it's working."
Gulley, 50, grew up in the heart of Los Angeles and confides that she
would not want to be a kid growing up in this society. "The stuff kids
face now-a-days was unheard of then. Gangs would fight, but when you heard
of somebody being killed, it was a big deal. The first time I knew of people
in my generation dying like that was during Vietnam. Now kids wake up going,
'Am I going to be alive at the end of the day?' "
James' supporters range from principals and politicians to parents and
community leaders who have been affected by his dedication. Greg Franklin,
former principal of Bonita High School, says, "When the Ensemble came
to our school, they were very well rehearsed and did an excellent job of
making their presentations. I had several students go out of their way to
tell me how much the assembly meant to them. Their stories spoke to them
about overcoming hardships, mending relationships and having the strength
to make appropriate choices. I was very pleased."
Timothy Murphy, Los Angeles County court commissioner, praises James
for his skill and caring in working with at-risk children. "James is
making a huge difference. His program is nothing short of remarkable."
Such praise can be heady. However, Gulley says that James is one of
the most humble men she knows.
"I think he sees a little part of himself in each of those kids,"
she relates. "He has faced many obstacles and he definitely has his
critics, but you can't criticize the system if you are not out doing something
about it yourself."
"All the world's a stage," runs the quote from Shakespeare's
"As You Like It," but to Deputy Gregory James, the stage is all
the world. Using his God-given talent James puts his money where his mouth
is. Proving that one dedicated person can make a difference.
Deputy Gregory James conducts his business at Wessex Middle School in
Los Angeles from behind a small rectangular desk in an office that barely
holds it. His job involves monitoring and mentoring middle school students
who are on probation. He also conducts a prevention program to keep kids
out of trouble.