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'Sweet' Alice, 76, makes kids' college goals possible $5 at a time

By Zohreen Adamjee, CNN
"Sweet" Alice Harris speaks with members of the bank that is opening up savings accounts for the children of Watts.
"Sweet" Alice Harris speaks with members of the bank that is opening up savings accounts for the children of Watts.
  • "Sweet" Alice Harris of Watts, California, gives $5 to any kid who wants a saving account
  • The kids must pledge to stay in school -- and seek to go to college
  • Nearly 100 kids apply for the savings accounts Saturday
  • 40 youths who opened the savings accounts in the past three years are now going to junior college

Watts, California (CNN) -- One savings account at a time, "Sweet" Alice Harris is trying to save youths from the temptations of crime and violence in Los Angeles' notoriously troubled neighborhood of Watts.

Harris, 76, is a humanitarian with a big mission on the most modest of budgets.

Twice a year, she tries to instill the importance of saving money for college by offering any youth $5 -- if and only if the youngsters place that money in a savings account.

While some may doubt whether such a notion could succeed, Harris can count 40 youngsters who took up her offer over the past three years -- and are now going to junior college.

"The majority of the people who've opened an account have stayed in school," said Harris at her community center called Parents of Watts (POW), a nonprofit youth outreach group she began in 1979 to keep kids off the streets and in school.

On Saturday, Harris held her latest "back-to-school community event," in which 96 kids applied for a savings account that holds $5, donated by Harris' organization.

In exchange for accepting the $5, the youngsters have to pledge that the money will be used for their college education and that the youths will contribute to their own savings over time, Harris said.

Harris, who has been living in Watts at least since its 1960s riots, said the savings account program teaches youths discipline and the importance of savings -- as well as letting them know she and her group are there to support their college dreams.

Harris operates her micro-giving program through Kinecta Federal Credit Union and Nix Financial.

Ariel Flowers, 16, was one of the many to open an account Saturday.

She hopes to save the money for college, because she says, "Pepperdine costs a lot of money." Through summer jobs and babysitting in the next few years, she hopes to make her dream possible and wishes to open up her own business one day.

Danielle Sandoval, 13, of Downey, California, signed up for one of the $5 accounts two years ago and now she has saved $700, through an allowance from her mother and cash gifts to her during her birthdays and Christmas.

She dreams of attending California State University at Long Beach -- and wants to become a veterinarian.

"The other kids, maybe, they want to be spoiled. I want to be independent, buy my own car and buy my own house," Danielle said at the community center, near a booth set up by the banks.

Danielle Sandoval has saved $700 from the original $5 she received two years ago when she opened her account.
Danielle Sandoval has saved $700 from the original $5 she received two years ago when she opened her account.

Harris said Danielle is a model saver: the West Middle School student has saved the most in the program over a two-year period. In addition to being on her school's honor role, the girl was given another honor Saturday; Kinecta and Nix Financial awarded her an additional $250 to put in her savings account.

"We want to keep encouraging her to save," said Mel Calloway, the executive vice president of Kinecta and Nix Financial. "We were very proud of her, she had a lot of discipline in her savings."

Harris said she gives out the money for the savings accounts through the donations she receives through her community group.

She feels strongly about the programs she runs because of the inspiration she personally received: it was her own mentor who opened up Harris's savings account for her decades ago.

"It helped me go to beauty college. What she did for me, I do for these kids. I know what it's like to feel like nothing," Harris said.

Harris hopes the kids will finish college. "I envision that they won't go to jail, they won't gang bang," she said.

For Harris, the Watts riots aren't forgotten: 46 years after the violence, the neighborhood still faces deep problems.

Capt. Phil Tingirides of the Los Angeles police's southeast station said that Watts "is a very hard community and influenced by violent street gangs." The four housing projects in Watts have traditionally been violent, with large amounts of drug dealing, he said.

But he applauds how "Sweet" Alice is pushing the youth in the community to be financially independent.

Regarding the $5 that Harris donates, Tingirides stated: "It's very symbolic on one hand and on the other hand, probably more money than anyone's legitimately ever given many of them."