VAN NUYS (CBSLA.com) — Local kids are being taught respect, discipline and life skills at a very unlikely venue in Van Nuys.
The Van Nuys Jeopardy Program conducts its operation in a rundown former dental office just off Woodman Avenue.
The program is run by the Los Angeles Police Department for children ages 9 to 17 who are at-risk or are facing difficult life challenges.
Some children are sent to the program by order of the courts, but most attend because their principals or parents consider them at-risk.
“When a child gets here and they’re signed in, he or she has to come say hi to me and they have to shake my hand,” LAPD Officer John Bailey said.
One of those children required to shake Bailey’s hand when they arrive is 16-year old Geo Gandara.
Gandara started at the program when he was 11 after his mother noticed he was hanging around a bad crowd.
“I had a bad temper at that time,” Gandara said.
His mother, Corrie Alvarado, said: “I did see them in the street, and they did look like gang members and I told him that he needed to join Jeopardy.”
Five years after he began at the program, Gandara finds himself at the center of the program’s boxing ring.
He is coached by Carlos Palomino, a three-time world welterweight champion and a volunteer of the program.
“I’m not trying to make world champions; I’m hoping to inspire kids to be better people,” Palomino said of his role with the program.
Despite this, Palomino has in fact coached Gandara into a champion, recently winning the Junior World Olympics and the Diamond Belt Championship.
“He’s just a sponge,” Palomino said of Gandara. “He just wants to learn everything that we work on. And everything we work on he applies, and that’s the hard part,” Palomino added.
Palomino even believes that Gandara could reach the Olympics one day.
“He’s got the potential to go all the way as an amateur and as a pro,” Palomino said.
Success doesn’t get to his head, however, as Gandara says that boxing and the Jeopardy Program have changed his life for the better.
“I love everything about it, to the discipline, to knowing I could improve myself each day,” Gandara said.
Gandara’s mother has noticed the changes in his life as well, saying that his self-esteem, grades and everything else has turned around since joining the program.
Bailey is quick to point out that Gandara is not the only success story of the program.
Hundreds of kids have come through the Jeopardy Program, and at least half of them manage to stay on a steady life course.
“This is kind of a safe house for them, and we basically provide them with a better path in life so they don’t go down the wrong road,” Bailey said.
At the facility in Van Nuys, students can work out or just hang out, but not until they complete their homework.
“It’s police working with the kids and in a way it’s futuristic crime reduction,” Bailey said.
Gandara’s mother has noticed some of Geo’s friends are doing drugs or have dropped out of school, while her son now has a future.
“Endless possibilities,” Alvarado said.
“The sky’s the limit. I know if he puts his mind to something, he’s very determined and he will do it,” she added.
Gandara says he hopes to become the lightweight champion of the world, before moving on to bigger and more influential aspirations.
“Hopefully [I can] make another program like Jeopardy, to help others and change their lives as well,” Gandara said.
Those interested in learning more about the Van Nuys Jeopardy Program can contact officer Maria Garcia at (818) 756-9502 or officer John Bailey at (818) 756-9406.