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Summer of my independence. Bronx teens answer `help wanted' call from Cape Cod town

By Meribeth SnivelySpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 1988



North Truro, Mass.

IT was like something out of an old western without tumbleweeds. A gray, weathered building stood by the side of the road. The letters on the sign that said ``Motel'' were barely hanging on. As the bus turned into the driveway, 31 students and three adults stared out its windows in disbelief. ``Please, don't let this be the motel,'' one student said.

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They had come from the inner city of Bronx, New York, to work on Cape Cod. In recent years, Cape Cod has been in dire need of summertime workers, but a lack of housing has limited the number of people they could bring to the Cape from elsewhere. These students, eager to escape the city, had come to offer their services and to learn to live on their own.

But to their dismay, the motel that was to be their home for the next three months had no working refrigerator, no phone, and faulty plumbing. The nearest store was six miles away. This was not what they had expected.

The students were participants in a program sponsored by their high school, DeWitt Clinton. Organizers wanted the students to gain a better sense of self-worth by living away from home and holding one or two jobs. The program was organized rather quickly, however, so no one from New York had seen the motel until they arrived.

The townspeople knew the motel well. ``There was concern,'' said Harry Bredemeier, a resident of Truro. ``Forty-four kids from the Bronx are going to live in this motel?'' he said. Yet even with the concerns about the planning, many residents still wanted the program to work, because employees were desperately needed by the community.

Luis Espinosa, a teacher from DeWitt Clinton, was chosen to work as a guardian and mentor for the students. Though the students would need support, he discovered they didn't need as much guidance as he had expected. ``We were all in it together and we began to solve the problems together,'' Mr. Espinosa said.

The students organized themselves to make life in the motel bearable, working as a group to keep up the grounds. They also chose wake-up people for each morning and took individual responsibility when it came to cleaning their rooms. Together they built a community in which they could all live comfortably when they were not working at their jobs.

``It's really shocking to me as an adult and as a teacher to see how quickly these kids learn, kids who are always taught from the very start to be inferior - that they are not able to achieve,'' said Espinosa. ``Here, given the opportunity to explore on their own and work together and make decisions among themselves, these kids have learned to adapt themselves to different situations.''

Espinosa's assistant, Vivian Pierre, also a teacher from DeWitt Clinton, helped organize a kitchen co-op. The students could join the co-op for $2 a day, which paid for breakfast and dinner. They agreed to take turns helping with the cleanup and cooking. If a student chose not to join the co-op, that was fine, as long as he did his own cooking and cleanup. The motel soon repaired the phone and refrigerator.

The students had begun to look for work at the same time they were working to solve the problems of the living situation. In this search, they found that what they needed most was transportation.

This is where the townspeople were able to offer the greatest assistance, and according to Espinosa, without them the program would have come close to falling apart. ``They didn't realize there was no transportation,'' said Peggy Cluster, a Truro resident. ``We did get some people and organize car pools.'' They also worked to get bicycles for the students.

Thanks to the transportation offered by residents, every student was able to find a job within the first two weeks. Some even found two or three. Their jobs varied from ice cream scoopers to construction workers.

With all the difficulties they faced, the students were still able to look at the situation positively. They said they learned what it's like to live alone and be responsible for rent, food costs, and expenses. The program ``teaches responsibility, because you have to pay the rent,'' said student Bill Carey. ``You have to look at it with a sense of discipline and understanding.''

Some people, though, question whether the program will continue next year. ``This is a nice idea, but I doubt that in the future it can be economically viable without subsidization,'' said Mr. Bredemeier.

But whatever the future of the program, few doubts are voiced about the success of the first effort. ``I would say the kids did a magnificent job with a lot of odds against them - coming here and finding it so isolated,'' said Mrs. Cluster. ``Every single kid has been wonderful and appreciative. They're terrific kids.''