BELLFLOWER, CALIF. -- Maria, an 18-year-old with cerebral palsy, was attempting to maneuver the electric wheelchair that she has owned for four months. With a clenched hand, she jiggled a soft yellow tennis ball cut to fit over the control knob, but the results were erratic.

"She knows what to do; she just can't get her muscles to do it," said Salvador, 16, a former gang member assisting her. Maria slowly made her way along the school corridor, often veering toward a wall. When she ran into a door, she laughed. Salvador, wearing a braided cross made during one of his three stints in detention, laughed with her.

Maria is among 220 disabled students, ages 3 to 22, attending the Lynn Pace School in this city 16 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Salvador is part of the Southeast Community Day Center, which has brought 32 delinquent students, mostly males, to the Pace school. They represent 14 gangs.

Both groups, the special-education students and the gang members, usually are outcasts in their own little worlds. This program, the only one of its kind in the nation, brings them together to see how they can help each other.

"I never had anyone need me before," Rudy, a Southeast student, wrote during a class assignment. "Sometimes, I feel like lending my eyes or my legs to some of these children so they could see or walk."

Southeast is part of the juvenile-court school system, which serves more than 56,000 incarcerated youths or minors under the court's protective custody. Students attending Southeast, one of 14 community day center programs in Los Angeles County, also participate in community work two hours each day and eventually are returned to the public school system. At Southeast, most work with special-education students, and those discomfited by that work on school grounds or in the school office.

School starts at 8 a.m. At 9:30, Southeast students greet buses bearing their classmates -- students with autism, learning disabilities, impaired hearing or vision and other disabilities.

The program's premise is that "everyone needs to be needed," said Laurie Twineham, spokeswoman for the county Office of Education, which runs the program.

"When they come in, they frown and want to look rough and tough," Sandy Osborn, one of two teachers at Southeast, said of the gang members. "When I place them in one of these classes, they come back smiling."

Part of the attitudinal change occurs because the students are in neutral territory, she said. "These kids take off their gang hats and gang jackets, and they pick up a spoon to feed a child," Osborn said. "And {they} use their arms, not their fists to fight, but their arms to hug."

When one Southeast student returned to school after an absence, he was told that the disabled child whom he usually helped had refused to eat until the student returned. "They're missed for one day," Osborn said. "These are the types of messages they're getting: 'I'm important.' "

Cedric Anderson, a teacher and counselor here since the program began in October 1988, said of the delinquents, "In our territory, they sort of change to our ways. Here, they're as gentle as lambs. Environment is the key."

"We know what they were before they came here," he said. "They got in some trouble. That's past. Let's talk about today."

Attitude, not academics, is most important at this school. "Once they get some of their hang-ups out of the way, we can work on academics," Anderson said, noting that these students, ages 11 to 18, are three to four years behind their peers academically.

Alfonso R., a Southeast student, writes, "Now that I'm here, I don't feel like gang-banging anymore, and for that, I thank everyone I help and has helped me."

Attendance is a healthy 89 percent, and 60 percent of those who leave the program stay out of trouble. Only one-third of students interested in Southeast agree to enter the program after learning what is required.

A student at Mayfair High School in Lakewood left Southeast but chose to return there during his elective class period. The county is processing the application of another Southeast student seeking to become an instructional aide at the Pace school.

"We're real careful about who we let into the program," Osborn said. Safety is important. "They cross a lot of territories to get to campus," she said, referring to the gangs' propensity for challenging anyone invading their "turf."

Candidates to attend Southeast are interviewd by the students during the enrollment process. "They check us out while we check them out," Anderson said. One prospective student was turned down after the school learned of his involvement in a drive-by shooting in which a Southeast student's uncle was shot.

Sometimes, gang activity, substance abuse, weapons, robbery and truancy overwhelm students here. "There are children who leave this program because they cannot accept the responsibility," Twineham said.

For most of the students, encouragement and the sense of responsibility offered here are the only positives in their lives, helping them to grow academically and socially. A similar program is planned for the San Jose School in West Covina, east of Los Angeles.

The special-education students benefit, too. Judy Gunnette, one of their teachers, said the delinquents try to establish order, routine and structure in a disabled child's life. Having the Southeast students around gives the disabled "a lot of individual attention that they probably don't get," she said.

"To me, the handicapped kids are good to me and are just like anybody else," wrote Sammy B., a Southeast student, during a class assignment. "They just have different types of problems. Everyone has problems."

Maria uses a picture board to communicate. "What would you like to say?" Salvador asked her. She pointed to the word "I," then to the heart shape, then to Salvador's name -- "I love Salvador."