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They are on sidewalks in neighborhoods all around San Francisco -- kids selling $5 candy from plastic bins, working the streets in pairs as evening falls. They're young, 12 to 16, and they hawk intensely, calling out dibs -- "I got her" -- on passers-by, spinning a sales pitch they've been taught by the older men who will be back in vans later to pick them up and haul them home, sometimes past when the law allows.
The kids and the men in the vans are Youth in Action -- not the university-exchange program Youth in Action listed as a charitable trust with the Attorney General's Office, not the San Francisco Conservation Corps Youth in Action after-school study and community service program, but a San Rafael-based business that puts scores of children and teens on city streets between 5 and 8 in the evening three nights a week selling candy to strangers.
Yellow cards in the candy-selling Youth in Action bins say the business is "a job-training and activity program for teens in the Bay Area." But like other businesses nationwide over the last 21 years that have put inner-city kids in affluent neighborhoods selling candy after school, this Youth in Action has come in for some criticism around the Bay Area as exploitative, inappropriate, and evasive.
"We are a very positive element in the city and the Bay Area," says Youth in Action's Scott Walker, who runs the business from a San Rafael office park just off the west end of the Richmond Bridge.
"I hate them. I think they're exploiting kids," says Anthony Mickens, co-director of the San Francisco Conservation Corps' Youth in Action program. "I'm not sure what they're actually learning."
In the past year, the candy-selling Youth in Action has been thrown off the campus of one San Francisco middle school, according to the school's assistant principal. And according to the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), which regulates such things, the Youth in Action candy-selling program may violate state labor laws prohibiting minors under the age of 15 from working on school nights past 7 p.m.
"They blew it," says DIR's Rick Rice.
According to Walker, a slightly built, blond-haired man with bright blue eyes and a dent in the middle of his forehead, his Youth in Action is a 30-year-old nationwide organization, based in New Jersey and dedicated to teaching job skills to youth.
"Our whole program is to give teen-agers positive things to do in their spare time," Walker says.
Since the early '70s, labor and consumer affairs officials around the nation have investigated businesses that employ children to sell candy on the street and door to door. Congress held hearings on whether the businesses violated child labor laws in 1974. Eventually the investigations focused on a New Jersey entrepreneur, Gerald Winters, who supplied candy to the candy-selling groups, according to a 1990 Washington Post article that reported a 22-count racketeering indictment against Winters. Winters, the article said, got his start in the candy-selling business at age 10 in Richmond, Calif., right across the bridge from where Youth in Action's offices are today.
In 1994, the candy-selling Youth in Action received official nonprofit status from the state of California under the name Bay Area Youth. They took that name, Walker said, because there was already a Youth in Action registered with the Charitable Trusts division in the Attorney General's Office. That Youth in Action is a Yorba Linda-based university-exchange program, according to its director, Art Sykes.
"Yeah, that Youth in Action you're talking about there, I don't know who they are but they have nothing to do with us," says Sykes. Like Mickens at the San Francisco Conservation Corps, Sykes has received phone calls about the candy-selling Youth in Action.
"A lot of kids are getting confused," Mickens says. The Conservation Corps' Youth in Action program combines classroom time with community service -- two days a week, the 96 students participating in the program this fall attend a study hall and an environmental studies lesson, and then on Saturday the students work for minimum wage, doing such things as cleaning up trash along the streets of the Mission or working in the parks or on the beaches, landscaping trails, or in conjunction with Glide Memorial Church or with Project Open Hand, which serves meals to homebound people with AIDS. "We work with five middle schools," Mickens says.
The candy-selling Youth in Action is not like the other two Youth in Action programs, despite the similarity of names.
The way the San Rafael-based Youth in Action works, the kids are split into crews of 20 to 25 teens. A "crew leader" picks them up in a van and drives them into the neighborhood where they'll be working. They're dropped off with their bins of candy, which they sell on consignment. The costs of transportation and "membership" in Youth in Action are deducted from the money the kids take in on the candy, Walker says. The kids work two or three nights a week from 5 to 8, and return home between 9 and 9:30, according to Walker and to the business' printed literature. "They're independent contractors," Walker says of the children who work for him. Some nights, the children don't return home until 11:30.
On the walls of Youth in Action's office, maps of the Bay Area are marked with black lines indicating when each area has been canvassed. "You don't want to saturate an area," Tom Riley, a crew leader, explains. "We're back every eight to 10 weeks."
"The teen-agers are not dumb," Walker says. "They're not going to come back if it's not a good deal."
Stopped on the street and in shopping malls, the children themselves offer blank stares when asked questions that require them to diverge from their prepared speeches, as if unwilling or unable to stray from the script. They stare out past you, looking for the next customer.
But if the kids aren't talking, other people are.
"It is absolutely inappropriate for any child to be selling candy at any time, especially at night," says Mary Buttler, principal of Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, close to Youth in Action's home base. "Their bodies are young, they need rest, they need to be at home."
"They put them, I think, in some dangerous emotional situations," she says. "It makes me crazy when I find out about it. They use these kids. They really use them. There's no reason they need to sell candy."
And at least one San Francisco school called the police when Youth in Action appeared last year with fliers that promised $100 a week to the young candy-sellers.
"What happened is last year they gave some fliers to our students. They were walking around our students doing that," says John Greener, assistant principal at Ben Franklin Middle School, on Scott Street. "I thought it was really inappropriate the way they were doing that."
Greener called the school police, he says.
"The kids didn't know them. Somebody would have a van outside and jump out of the van and visit with them. I just wanted to make sure our kids weren't being lured."
"I had actually called the organization and told them I would like them to send me material on the organization," Greener says. "The people didn't get back to me right away. They seemed kind of evasive."
"We would never let people like this on school property to distribute this stuff," Greener says.
"We don't let any business venture advertise in the schools through our distribution," says the San Francisco School District's Gail Kaufman, whose job includes approving all items that can be posted in the schools. "Something like that has never come to me, but if it did I would certainly do a full investigation. I would certainly be extremely cautious.