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Can the Children of Watts Change Their Troubled Hood?

David Moss gives Jaree Scott, a sixth-grader, an application for the May 2-4 mountain camp.EXPAND
David Moss gives Jaree Scott, a sixth-grader, an application for the May 2-4 mountain camp.
Calvin Alagot

Prophet Walker, a Watts native, was abandoned at the Nickerson Gardens housing project down the street from Markham Middle School at the age of six by his heroin addicted mother. He got into a fight at sixteen during which a CD player was broken and was tried as an adult for assault and robbery, spending six years in prison.

Though wronged as a boy, he had an inner drive, and started a college program for inmates who wanted to get two-year degrees. After Walker graduated from Loyola Marymount last May, he got involved in work that some experts think could stop Watts children from drifting into crime or violence: simply put, by getting the kids out of town.

A super-secure Watts ice cream truck.
A super-secure Watts ice cream truck.

Walker, who is now is running for California's 64th state Assembly District, started working with Markham Middle School's longtime mentor to students David Moss, who takes hundreds of children from Watts for camp retreats four times a year in the Angeles National Forest.

There, for a few weeks during the off-season, the popular Canyon Creek Sports Camp becomes "Camp Ubuntu," taken from a South African philosophy that cherishes the community as well as the individual and can be summarized with the phrase, "I am because we are."

Moss explains to L.A. Weekly that troubled Markham Middle School and its students play an unusual role in altering the future of Watts itself - because Markham is where many children representing the area's "four rival housing projects meet for the first time."

The 81-acre camp in the Angeles National Forest welcomes low-income students and families accustomed to the tough streets of Watts - but not accustomed to woods, creeks and complete safety to play outdoors after twilight.

Their stay is funded by donations and the annual charity event Pedals on the Pier, where $636,413 was raised last year. 

David Moss introduces Randy Willhite, Dhakir Warren, Prophet Walker and  Joe Evans to Markham sixth-graders.EXPAND
David Moss introduces Randy Willhite, Dhakir Warren, Prophet Walker and Joe Evans to Markham sixth-graders.
Calvin Alagot

The driving force behind it, Moss, is president and co-founder of the Harold Robinson Foundation, a Los Angeles nonprofit that oversees the weekend camp retreats aimed at letting children and their families build better bonds and strengthen community ties outside the street rules of Watts.

For decades, the children from Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts and Gonzaque Village, particularly the boys, have been at odds - sometimes even at war.

Markham Middle School is a strange place to launch a community cohesion revolution. It's not even a place most parents would send their kids, if they could choose.

Current statewide test scores show that Markham's teachers and students are stuck in academic failure. Most telling is Markham's 2012 Similar Schools rating - which parents can view online to see how their school is faring against other California schools with identical levels of poverty and the same racial mix.

In the Similar Schools ranking, Markham is among the worst of the worst middle schools in California: It earns at dismal 2 out of 10 against matching schools. It is known as a dropout factory where smart, eager grade-schoolers go to fail. The school has attracted the attention of LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy. 

Yet Markham's kids show their great, untapped promise. Four eighth-graders at Markham were named middle school champions of the 2013 MESA National Engineering Design Competition in Oregon, after being mentored by Julio Romero, Danae Tousant, Ashley Baker and Jacqueline Sanchez from the MESA outreach program at The Henry Samueli School of Engineering.

A Watts neighborhood near the towers.
A Watts neighborhood near the towers.

Moss says his own foundation is focusing on Markham's sixth-graders because the transition into this middle school - from quiet and non-violent grade schools such as Weigand Elementary - is tough. And even before they arrive, he says, they have been exposed to street violence in divided Watts.

So, "We're not changing them right the second they come to camp," says Moss, "but we're exposing them to each other, to new things, to new attitudes and we're planting seeds for the future."

Walker, who works closely with Moss, is at the same time a leading member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (A.R.C.), founded by The Hangover producer Scott Budnick. Walker and Budnick, via A.R.C., advocate prison reform and sentencing reform. And the group puts its money where its mouth is by providing incarcerated youth a second chance   - by helping them join the work force.

Together at Camp Ubuntu, Moss and Walker hired A.R.C members as counselors and mentors.

Walker says "Innately we're all great, we all have the power to affect change in our lives and the lives of others."

Budnick says that the coalition has grown to more than 140 formerly incarcerated members and that the children definitely relate to them:

"It's making a huge difference because the A.R.C. members were these kids, they were dealing with the exact same issues, they were dealing with the exact same struggles, they came from the exact same neighborhoods. The bonds that our members make with our kids over these weekends are unbelievable."

The Harold Robinson Foundation wants to bring the same community-building exercises used at camp to the Markham campus, though a summer day camp where children can gather and play. 

Dhakir Warren, director of the Markham summer day camp, says that the students will take weekly field trips to the beach or universities. Warren says the foundation understands that community-building like this will take time, and says of the growing number of adult volunteers, "This is a labor of love."