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HOLLYWOOD SPOTLIGHT SHINES ON TRAINING PROGRAM.

Byline: Yvette Cabrera Staff Writer

Mark Arredondo, a former gang member struggling to make a new life for himself, got his break in Hollywood.

After years of minimum-wage jobs, the Sylmar 21-year-old is working behind the scenes as a stagehand and earning as much as $23 an hour, more than he'd ever imagined.

Arredondo is one of 34 disadvantaged youths and former gang members who have been given a second chance through a pilot training program sponsored by the Pacoima-based Communities in Schools and the Local 33 of the stagehands union.

``It's all new. I've never done anything like this before,'' Arredondo said. ``I'm just trying to soak all that up. I'm trying to be a sponge.''

From network soap opera tapings at the major television networks to political rallies, this group of 34 men and women, many of them from the northeast San Fernando Valley, are learning to set a Hollywood stage.

The trainees ``are fantastic,'' said Mark Rodriguez, chief executive officer of Valencia-based MDR Entertainment LLC, a television production company that has hired about six of the trainees, including Arredondo.

``I've hired Mark for every single show that I do because I really like him. He's been trustworthy. He's eager to learn. . . . He's wonderful.''

When Rodriguez organized the record-release signings of Puerto Rican pop sensation Ricky Martin and actress Jennifer Lopez in Hollywood, Arredondo was there. From building stages, to setting up lights and loading audio - the trainees are behind the scenes, but crucial to the events.

``I think these kids all deserve a break and so far they have not proven me wrong,'' Rodriguez said. ``You can call them up at the last minute and they'll be right there.''

The 7-month-old program is one of several projects the nonprofit Communities in Schools has launched as part of its strategy to reduce gang violence in the Valley, said William ``Blinky'' Rodriguez, the agency's executive director.

``We're dealing with a population that nobody wants to deal with. . . . But we're here for the long haul. . . . We're about systematic change.''

William Rodriguez helped negotiate the 1993 Unity Peace treaty, under which 75 local gangs agreed to refrain from attacks on rivals. These gangs came together for sporting events and weekly sessions to hash out street tension.

``But then I said you can either feed them fish or you can teach them to fish,'' Rodriguez said, explaining that many of the gang members come to him seeking jobs.

So he began to develop employment services, including a probation-to-work program and an entrepreneurial academy at Universal City Walk, where local businesses provide mentors.

``Even though there's always going to be obstacles, I'm excited. I see us turning the corner.''

The partnership with Local 33 was proposed by Robert ``Bobby'' Arias to help disadvantaged youths establish careers in the entertainment industry.

``We'll take any job opportunities, but we wanted to move beyond . . . fries and burger jobs,'' said Arias, president of the Los Angeles Communities in Schools: The Los Angeles Mentoring Partnership.

``With their success, the program starts to break down the stereotypes that people have about this population,'' Arias said.

Local 33 business representative Roy La Voise saw the training program as an opportunity to bring in fresh talent.

``They're young, they're eager and they're hungry,'' said La Voise. ``These kids just jump right in there. They're eager to make some money and get to work.''

The stagehands work in the live theaters in Los Angeles and have television contracts with all the major networks.

In the training sessions, the trainees, who range in age from 18 to 31, use state-of-the-art equipment, lent by local vendors. One day, La Voise and Arias hope to have a permanent training location and envision partnerships with more unions.

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Photo

Photo: Mark Arredondo, right, takes a breather after helping unload an equipment trailer at the Greek Theatre.

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 2, 1999
Words:645
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