Sunday, December 28, 1997
Home Edition
Section: Metro
Page: B-6

Glendale Galleria Shop Provides Job Training and Experience That Students Will Need in Competitive Business Environment


Amid the holiday shopping frenzy at the Glendale Galleria is the gift shop Bliss Unlimited, the only store in the mall that pays no rent--and pays no salaries, and yet is flooded with young applicants for its jobs.

Unique in a nation of malls and the legions of teenagers who teem inside them, the Bliss Unlimited experiment of letting students mind the store is being hailed as a model of community cooperation. A few students at a time, it is providing job training and basic skills needed for the working world.

"It's real important for kids, especially at-risk kids, to be made to feel valuable," said Linda Maxwell, co-director of We Care for Youth, the private, nonprofit organization that conceived and administers Bliss Unlimited.

Now open to all students, We Care was founded in Glendale in 1992 to make job training and "life skills" courses available to at-risk youths. The agency is supported by private donations and fees from the Glendale Galleria and the Glendale Unified School District, Maxwell said.

Operating on a shoestring $60,000 budget, out of space provided by the schools and the Galleria, We Care provides instruction in such things as how to dress properly and how to survive a job interview.

Until the Glendale Galleria offered free retail space this year, the venture was limited to training and education programs. Now, with Bliss Unlimited, Maxwell said, young people "have a hands-on opportunity to develop themselves, learn about business and discover what it is they're interested in."

Some 4,000 youths have "graduated" from We Care programs, and 25 students are currently involved in the Bliss Unlimited venture, according to Sandra Guerrero, an adult coordinator of the program.

Although all of the teenagers involved in We Care come from Glendale public schools, not all are considered at-risk.

Gevorg Grigoryan, 16, for example, is the store's assistant manager. He joined the program, he said, "to learn more."

"I wanted to get a job; I always did," said the Glendale High School sophomore. "I wanted to learn about how to get a job, and for training."

Now, he said, "I've got a resume, and I've learned how to [run] a business."

But unlike Grigoryan, most of the youths were not always as dedicated or committed to developing themselves.

Sharise Kirestian, 15, described how she got involved in the program. Earlier this year, she said, she watched in horror as a friend was shot to death outside a party.

"It made me think how bad of a kid I was," said the Hoover High School sophomore. "Sometimes I think that if it weren't for me wanting to go to that party, he'd still be alive.

"I made a good choice to join We Care. It turned my life around. My parents respect me now."

Jim Reed, the National Urban League's director of community-based job training, said he had "never heard of anything like" the program. "It's innovative. And jobs are so important in turning lives around."

Reed said job training is not the only answer.

"People need goals and inspiration too," he said. "In the whole array of social services and dealing with persons who, one way or another, have been left out of the system, having a career is critical.

"But getting kids to do something, just anything, is not enough. They have to see their own potentials too."

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, Bliss Unlimited is a unique offshoot of what is gradually becoming a familiar partnership: malls and social service agencies working together to provide training and job assistance to teenagers.

There are a handful of programs like We Care for Youth that depend on businesses and community organizations to train young people, said Karen Killeen, spokeswoman for the shopping center's council, citing malls in Toronto and San Rafael, Calif., as places where businesses and teenagers have begun working together. These malls have set up rooms for youths to hang out and have begun mall-wide internship programs, but nothing as ambitious as Bliss Unlimited's concept, she said.

Bliss Unlimited's shelves are lined with T-shirts, coffee mugs, candles, gift baskets and greeting cards. Its space, about 1,465 square feet, would rent for between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, said Cindy Chong, Galleria general manager. "But we had some available space, and we thought this was the right thing to do," she said.