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Take time to read beyond books' covers

Local Commentary

Posted: May 5, 2008 6:56 p.m.
Updated: July 5, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Never judge a book by its cover. You've certainly heard that statement countless times.

Years ago, I met Mustafa Bell, Mike Baham and James Johnson at my work site, Kenyon J. Scudder Juvenile Probation Camp School in Bouquet Canyon.

To be straight up honest with you, I really had my doubts about these fellows. Mustafa, James and Mike certainly appeared different.

Nonetheless, their reputations as health educators preceded them; they came highly recommended from the Catalyst Foundation of Lancaster.

Wow! Was my first impression wrong about these guys? I took the time to get to know them and listen to their message. I am pleased to tell you that inviting Mustafa, Mike and James to my classroom was one of the better decisions I've made as an educator. These gentlemen are truly diamonds (maybe in the rough) with hearts of gold.

And about what do these educators speak? The subjects of gangs, drugs, risky lifestyle and HIV are presented in such a clear, cogent manner, students can truly relate to the experience. This trio comes to my classroom every Wednesday and presents a curriculum that is always interesting, often fascinating, and sometimes spellbinding. Most importantly, their message changes the hard and dangerous way some kids think. If you can change the way a kid thinks, you've got a talent. I applaud that!

The Catalyst Foundation was founded in 1992 in Lancaster by Sonny Bartz. who died of AIDS. The following year his wife, Dr. Susan Lawrence, an oncologist, took the reins of the Catalyst Foundation and provided a critically important safety net in the Antelope Valley that lends health care assistance to the most vulnerable.

Through the state-licensed Bartz-Altadonna Memorial Clinic, the Catalyst Foundation provides primary medical care, food and housing programs, health education for the low-income, uninsured and underinsured, as well as state-of-the-art special care for those living with the HIV/AIDS virus and Hepatitis C.

The Catalyst Foundation also has 15-plus years of experience with the incarcerated. Through its "Life Challenge Program," Mustafa, James and Mike teach an innovative peer-led gang violence prevention program that addresses the challenges faced by boys and girls in at least six juvenile probation camps throughout Los Angeles County, including my work site.

In 2004, the Catalyst Foundation expanded its mission to include incarcerated adults, creating a "healing society" for inmates in the Honor Program at California State Prison, Lancaster.

'180' moment
A little bit about our trio. ... All have served long-term prison time. Mustafa and Mike come from Los Angeles's inner city; they were serious gang members involved in selling drugs. About eight years ago, Mustafa and Mike did a 180, transformed their lives and stopped their anti-social and self-destructive behavior.

In their powerful sharing of personal experiences, Mike and Mustafa enlighten young people on the realty of gang life: that it leads to death or life in prison. I asked Mike what prompted his "180" moment.

The father of four daughters, all in college and one an honor student, pondered and responded. Many years ago, as part of a school project, one of his daughters asked what his job was, he said.

How does my Dad make a living? Mike was ashamed to tell his daughter that he sold drugs. It was at that moment that Mike Baham decided he would change his lifestyle and do something he would be proud to talk to his kids about.

James, from Manhattan Beach, similarly found himself on the wrong side of the law. He began using drugs at an early age and dropped out of school. He found his way into the music business and at age 19 contracted the HIV virus. James' "180" moment came eight years ago when his doctor told him he was losing liver function and his prognosis for life was short term.

James decided that day he wanted to live, and he made the dramatic change. After watching nearly all his friends die of AIDS, James got clean and sober. He made that decision to change his life and to educate young people not to make the poor choices he had made. I am happy to say at age 40, James is doing well and has lived with the AIDS virus for more than two decades.

The Catalyst Foundation encourages young people to abstain from sex as a 100 percent sure way to avoid the HIV infection. But Catalyst teachers also knows that not all kids listen to that message. The Catalyst Foundation teaches protection from these deadly sexually transmitted diseases.

Here's a typical exchange in the classroom:
Mike: Why are you a member of a gang?
Student: It makes me feel like I am important and belong here.
Mike: Do you smoke or drink alcohol?
Student: Yes. I smoke or drink because it reduces my stress and allows me to forget my problems.
Mike: After you smoke or drink, does the stress come back? Do you still have the same problems you experienced before?
Student: Yes. It's only temporary. I still have the same problems.

"Nobody plans to become addicted to drugs or alcohol," Mike notes. "You simply lose control."

Change happens for different individuals and at different times.

That's why you can never give up on kids. Even when you think they are not listening to you, they are. Of course, kids are going to challenge parents. That's what's called growing up ... and it's sometimes painful.

How to help
That's why I am asking you to assist if you can. Make a donation to the Catalyst Foundation, a 501C non-profit organization. The organization makes a big difference in peoples' lives.

The Catalyst Foundation is located at:
44758 Elm Avenue
Lancaster, CA 93534
(661) 948-8559

I am so grateful to Mustafa, James and Mike for the job they do selflessly in helping kids. I am glad I read beyond the cover of the book.

Roger Gitlin is a Santa Clarita resident, teacher and Minuteman. He can be reached at His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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