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Theresa Gartland drove her car through the Nickerson Gardens housing development’s maze of two-story yellow stucco apartments on cracked, windy streets. She had no trouble finding building #7 in one of the largest public housing developments west of the Mississippi.

Nickerson was, and still is, infamous for it aggressive gangs and drug dealers. Even some police officers are reluctant to enter the huge project alone. But the 34-year-old transplant from upscale Potomac, Maryland, has been walking through the development since she worked for an open campus after-school tutoring program at Verbum Dei High School.

Laundry hung on a clothesline outside the first-floor corner apartment. A stunted eucalyptus tree provided little shade on a hot June noon.   

She honked the horn, leaning out the window as she drove up to three young kids playing in the small dried-out front yard.

“Will you tell Peachy to come out?” she asked.

They scampered through the front door and quickly returned. The girl named Desire, one of nine kids living with her parents in their three-bedroom apartment, shouted, “He’s coming out.”

Gartland called back, “OK.” Then, spotting the youngest sibling, said, “High, Stinka,” in a softer voice. “How are you? You having a good day? You going to go to Summer Night Lights?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, and get hot dogs?”

“Yeah,” the little boy said, nodding.

A tall, skinny 15-year-old boy walked across the yard and slid into the backseat behind Gartland. He was wearing a scooped neck blue T-shirt and jeans, and smiled in an adolescent kind of way. After she introduced him to me in the front seat, she asked, “How are you?”

“All right.”

“Good. Where do you feel like eating?”

“Umm, anywhere.”

They went back and forth for five minutes, finally settling on a Quiznos sub shop nearby. But when we got there, there was just a boarded up place in a dying mini-mall. Undaunted, they quickly decided to go to a nearby Jamba Juice.

Peachy, whose real name is Damien Berry, went to the counter, ordering strawberry smoothies for himself and me,  (doing a ride-along), along with a bottle of water for his mentor. While her Lyme disease is finally on the mend, she’s still on a strict no-starch, no-fat, no-alcohol diet, which means she can only eat salads and chicken she’s prepared herself. Shes battled the painful and disabling condition — which includes chronic fatigue, pounding headaches, muscle and joint aches, and all kinds of neurological problems — for more than three years now.

After some updating small talk, Gartland asked her mentee to explain their history to me.

“I’ve known Theresa for three or four years,” he said. “At Urban Compass she was, like, helping my other little brother. And then she got me into Verbum Dei. So I thank her for that. And she helps me with a lot of stuff. You know, we go shopping every week for my lunches. And then we go out to eat at a Subway or Burger King. Yeah, I consider her a mom.”

He said he couldn’t wait till he turned 16 and was able to drive. She had already, in fact, given him a short, impromptu driving lesson in a Starbucks’ parking lot. But then the conversation turned to more serious matters.

Stressing out at Verb

Peachy leaned forward, saying, “I like Verb [Verbum Dei High School, an all-boys Catholic secondary school in Watts]. But I’m not going to lie to you. Verb’s stressing me out a lot.” Then in a more upbeat tone reported, “But I finished my sophomore year.”

“You try really hard,” she encouraged. “I know you do.”

“Just the transition from public to a private school is hard,” he said with his head down. “And then me not being Catholic. Everybody in my community wants me to graduate from high school and go on to college. You know, they see me in my uniform: black pants, shoes and socks with a white shirt and black tie. So it’s like this pressure on you. You can be, like, really frustrated to keep your grades up. Everybody says, ‘Don’t screw up! Don’t screw up.’ It’s hard.”

Once again, Gartland was quick to come to the teenager’s defense. “It’s also the neighborhood you come from,” she noted. “You’re not the typical kid. You’re so far beyond that, above them. Not in bad way. But just, like, you’re so self-aware. You know, you’re a very deep thinker, and you don’t show it at all. But you know.”

Still, Peachy’s worried expression remained.

“I think the proudest moment I’ve had with you, and this is where I’m going to choke up,” she said with a melancholy chuckle, “is when you talk about graduating. Even if it’s not from Verb, but walking across the stage and graduating high school.”

Gartland is the executive director of Operation Progress (OP), where LAPD officers mentor at-risk, underserved kids, many of whom live in public housing developments. Peachy didn’t qualify for OP because his grades weren’t up to the required B average, so she decided to personally take him under her wings.

Ever since she started working at Urban Compass, an after-school tutorial program at Verbum Dei for students from Nickerson Gardens, she’d drive down Central Avenue by the sprawling development, wondering how anyone could possibly change the lives of its children.

And then it hit Gartland — who earned a master’s degree in education while teaching at Ascension School after graduating from Villanova University in Pennsylvania — the only thing that might work was an all-encompassing program from elementary school to college graduation. And it had to be more than just educational. There must be mentors these kids really respected to keep them away from all the local gangbangers and dope dealers.

But who? Who could foot that heavy bill?

Ecosystem

Operation Progress was started on a $10,000 shoestring budget provided by LAPD officer John Coughlin and his father, Richard, in 2000. The Boston native had 19 years in the department, 18 as a gang cop whose beat was Nickerson Gardens. It’s like a city onto itself, one with gangs, drugs and serious crime simply being facts of life for residents.

A couple years later, mega-developer Rick Caruso and his wife Tina, along with program visionaries Steve Robinson and his wife Janet Crown, came together to form a professional board and offer badly needed financial support.

Today, OP has developed into that all-encompassing “ecosystem.” The program guides at-risk children, starting recently with third- and fourth-graders mostly at St. Lawrence of Brindisi School in Watts, all the way through college graduation. Thirteen members of the LAPD from the Southeast Division currently mentor 46 kids. They not only make regular visits to St. Lawrence, but also go to the homes of children they’re mentoring.

In addition, there’s partnerships with local private high schools, including St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood and Verbum Dei. And besides LAPD’s mentoring, the innovative program’s “pillars of success” include academics, the arts, parental support, skills training, community service and ethics education. Activities range from outings to Dodgers games to horseback riding. College scholarship are also available.

OP’s bedrock mission has always been pretty straightforward: to empower underserved youth to become educated, capable, ethical and productive adults, who will then lead, mentor and contribute to society.

Kudos at City Hall

Also in June, Operation Progress student scholars, parents and supporters and its LAPD mentors were recognized at Los Angeles City Hall by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, Mayor Eric Garcetti and councilmembers.

In his remarks, Officer John Coughlin praised executive director Theresa Gartland for her dedication to OP. The founder of OP reported that Gartland regularly worked 50- to 60-hour weeks. Then, addressing the student scholars, the veteran cop said with a straight face, “Theresa also says she doesn’t have a boyfriend because of you students.”

Gartland also focused her City Hall comments on the students, squatting in a semicircle in the mayor’s press room on the third floor. “Our success is due to you guys at the end of the day,” she said. “And it’s really incredible to witness the growth of our scholars through the program. And you’re persevering and working hard.”

She added, “And then to see the officers standing behind you today is great, ‘cause they’re your biggest champions, they’re your biggest cheerleaders. It’s incredible how much time they sacrifice with you guys, to make sure you’re on the right path and help you make healthy decisions to be successful adults.

“So I really want to thank all of you guys. Because it’s these relationships that are transforming the community. It’s you guys who are changing the community. And the impact will be seen for future generations.”

Continuous growth

Gartland says nothing has made her more happy at Operation Progress than OP being recognized at City Hall for its often unnoticed daily work with inner-city kids facing huge life challenges.

The challenge for her right now is to completely rid her body of Lyme disease, which has sent numbing pain from her head to her feet, and just keeping up with how fast the program is growing. There’s a sister program in Boston and other cities are developing their own versions of OP. Fifty kids have gone through OP in L.A. since she started running it. And in the coming 2015-2016 school year, 12 to 15 more students will be added to the program. Nobody came close to envisioning that the pilot program started by Officer Coughlin would take off like it has.

Gartland says her own life has followed a similar serendipitous course — from being a teacher at inner-city Ascension School in L.A. after graduating from Villanova, then at Urban Compass for five years, and now running OP.

“Teaching was great, but it wasn’t necessarily me. Urban Compass really grounded me in the community. It really gave me my roots in Nickerson Gardens. It really shaped me. I found a place in L.A. Watts became my home,” she said.

“OP was just kind of a natural progression from Urban Compass,” she pointed out. “It put me on a larger stage. It’s given me more responsibility. It’s challenged me more. It’s pushed me. Now I definitely have a bigger impact on kids’ lives. Because now I can fundraise money that will make OP better with more programs.”

After a moment, Gartland said, “I love the bigger stage OP has put me on. Like, being honored by the City Council was probably one of the best days of my life. OP is doing exactly what I dreamed of doing.”