Yvette Monje's mom worries about the safety of her daughter, who is
rapidly approaching womanhood. "A man might try to talk to me," explains
Monje, a beautiful, dark-eyed high school girl from South L.A. Although
she welcomes the advice from her mom, a UPS accountant whom she
admires, Monje is a teenager and she shrugs off fear.
Her thoughts of home in a corner of L.A. many Angelenos know only for
its crime are of "our quiet street and great neighbors, who I love. Our
barbecue every weekend."
Her mom and stepdad are committed to making sure Monje, a student
with promise, enters college next fall. To that end, they removed her
from a troubled mainstream school and enrolled her at Animo Watts
Charter High School, where, Monje says with a chuckle, "Every teacher is
on your case." Her grades in biology, which fell to a D at her last
school, roared back to A's.
Now, she happily ticks off her favorite classes as if listing hot new
video games. "I like British literature, anatomy, physiology" -- she
laughs at how weighty it must sound -- "and trigonometry!"
She's getting A's in all.
Also jammed into her daily schedule is Young Angels of America, a
nonprofit program created by former entertainment industry executives
Brook Dougherty and Debbie Koerner. Young Angels teaches kids in dicey
neighborhoods to become businesspeople. It's a radical idea with a
simple premise: With guidance from professional volunteers, the kids
launch entrepreneurial school projects and productions that make money,
and then use the profits to enhance their schools.
When she heard about Young Angels, Monje recalls, "My math teacher
said it was an after-school program about fundraising, and I thought,
'Oh, selling chocolate on the street.' Instead, it was about having
school dances, holding auditions to produce talent shows, setting up and
running the student store."
Out of some secret place, a fledgling businesswoman arose. Says
Monje: "Right away I thought, 'How do we make a profit off a school
dance? Well, get a DJ, finger food -- and sell tickets for $5." Monje and
the other teens were shocked by their $700 profit.
They analyzed their results and "debriefed" to review their mistakes
and discussed what to do with the windfall. Everyone agreed, Animo Watts
needed soccer uniforms.
Profits from another school dance went to subsidize the price of
Animo Watts' first-ever yearbook -- the idea being that seniors from
every background should be able to afford one. The young entrepreneurs
drove the yearbook price down from $65 to $35.
The Young Angels program pairs kids from tough areas like South L.A.
and Watts with kids from Brentwood and other Westside schools. The kids
work at each other's events, sharing the load and cross-pollinating. The
kids with greater resources underwrite some of the costs of the
fundraisers, and both sides learn something.
A "sister team" of Pacific Palisades and Watts Animo students in
April netted several hundred dollars selling barely used prom dresses at
a Westside yard sale. The profits are helping pay the $13,500 cost of
throwing an elegant oceanside senior prom -- another first for Animo
Watts -- at Annenberg Beach House.
The rest of the prom fee will be paid by the Watts students out of
the $200 in weekly profits being generated by the bustling Animo Watts
student store. Monje says, "Everyone, including a lot of kids who didn't
care at first, is excited now about having the prom on the beach."
As the boss who oversees the "workers" in the school store the kids
set up, Monje has learned diplomacy, marketing, psychology and
management. Not everything has worked out. In the one failure that still
rankles, she sought to meet with the school principal. The question
came back, "What's this about, Yvette?" Monje's vague response: "The
To be more exact, Monje had determined that if the students could
control the revenue stream generated by the candy bars and junk food
that flies out of the vending machines, the kids could plow the profits
back into school needs. Under the current setup, "The schools get only
10 percent of the money!"
The principal looked into her idea and told Monje she was sorry, but the vending contract couldn't be broken.
The June 4 prom is just days away. The crazy dream of the seniors at
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Animo Watts -- of a real prom, with all the upscale trimmings -- has come
true. And of course, more than one boy in Watts has invited the
disarming Yvette Monje to be their date. Are these all boyfriends? She
laughs quietly, rolling her dark eyes. "I'm too busy for boyfriends!"