It was a chilly 6 a.m., two weeks before Christmas, and as a stream of cars came off the Bay Bridge from Oakland, Javier and Steve, two young men in blue jeans and light jackets, turned their pressure gun and "hydro twister" on the graffiti and dirt that had been ground into the sidewalk in front of the Conard Cafe on Ninth Street.

It was the beginning of the day for the commuters, but the end of another overnight shift for the two teenagers, respectively a $9-an-hour supervisor and a $6.50-an-hour line worker, employees of Sunrise Sidewalk Cleaners.

A similar scene could have been found in any big city--except for one thing. Javier and Steve are former gang members, and they are not only employees of Sunrise. They help run it.

Their business, now four years old, with 350 customers and an annual income of $200,000, is run out of the Columbia Park Boys and Girls Club, an example of how this familiar national organization, with 2,300 clubs serving 3 million young people, is finding new ways to place itself at the forefront of the battle to save America's at-risk youths. "The opportunities for learning outside of school are unlimited," Roxanne Spillett, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, told me, "and we are trying to fill that need."

Jim Richards, the director of the Columbia Park club, located in a blighted downtown neighborhood, said, "Some kids are motivated by the sports we offer, some by the art and music. But a lot of kids are looking for a way to make some legitimate money, and that's the idea of Sunrise."

Starting with a small grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development through the office of Mayor Willie Brown, and aided by gifts from See's Candies, the Gap and other merchants, the business now pays for itself. Typically, about 15 youngsters are working for and running the company at any given time, with staff support from the club, and most stay with the firm about 18 months before moving on to permanent jobs or more education.

The people who run the company trucks and the high-pressure cleaning equipment tend to be in their late teens, most often high school dropouts recruited from one of the Mission District gangs. They work from 8 p.m. until the pre-dawn hours; some take classes in the afternoon, seeking their high-school-equivalency certificates.

The sales crews, who are out lining up customers, are younger, and most work in the late afternoon, after their high school classes finish. I talked over coffee with the supervisor of the sales staff, 16-year-old Cristal Rodriguez.

Richards had emphasized to me that Sunrise is "not a jobs program; it is a youth development program." And Cristal helped me understand what that means.

Encouraged by a classmate at Gateway High School, she applied last year to the teenagers then doing the hiring for Sunrise--and almost was turned down. "I was so shy I didn't even want to answer the phone in the office," Cristal said--looking at the interviewer with a steady gaze.

Turning to Marissa Jaunakais, a 28-year-old systems planner who left a much better-paying business job to become the enterprise director at the Boys and Girls Club, Cristal said, "I know Marissa and the other staff people are there to show me how to do this or that. But they tell me the responsibility is mine. I have to be sure my salespeople are making their calls, dealing with the customers' needs, collecting the payments." Part of their pay depends on commissions, and those who do not show up to make their after-school rounds are dropped.

"What I like is you're always learning things," Cristal said. "Business people come in and teach us skills. A woman even came one day to teach us how to shake hands. My principal, who is also my adviser, loves what I'm doing here. He's always asking, 'How are your sales this month?' He wants me to run for student body president, but I'm not sure I'll have time."

Richards said, "I've been at this 35 years, and I've never seen a youth development program that works as well as this. Our guiding principle is that kids have no limits, and here we let them set their own goals and decide how to meet them; we stand behind them so they will not be allowed to fall on their faces, but what they achieve is all up to them. The real product is not clean sidewalks or money in their pockets. It's the skills of goal-setting and discipline they acquire."

I asked Cristal what she would have been doing if she had not walked into the Boys and Girls Club a year ago. "I'd probably be on the corner, like a lot of my friends are," she said. "I never thought there was any point in going to college, but now I'm sure I'll do that when I leave here. I'm totally committed to it."