At O’Connor’s Church Goods store on El Cajon Boulevard, symbols of hope and faith abound.

Just about everywhere you step, a watchful visage of Jesus Christ is peering your way.

But the true tale of hope and faith isn’t found in the Jesus Christ figurines or the holy depictions that pepper the store’s countertops.

It’s in the hot, sweaty warehouse in the back of the store, where 18-year-old Latrice Steward is refurbishing rows of glass candleholders so they can be sent out to be placed back upon altars across the country.

As she gives the candles new beginnings with a fresh wick and wad of wax, she’s also giving herself a new lease on life, with a paycheck and a purpose.

Latrice has met her father only once, at the age of 6. The best answer she has as to his whereabouts is the shrug of her shoulders.

Her mother pops in and out of her life, in between stints in prison, Latrice says.

These days, Latrice lives just down the road from O’Connor’s in a two-bedroom City Heights apartment with her grandmother, her step-grandfather and an older sister.

“It was hard ’cause I did at some point in my life wonder, would I have had a different life if I lived with my mom and dad like the other kids?” Latrice says. “But I see how she is, so that wouldn’t happen.”

Though you’d never believe it from watching her quietly, patiently and meticulously clean rows and rows of glass candleholders, Latrice says she came to O’Connors after struggling with anger problems at school. The recent Serra High School graduate ended up here through a special apprenticeship program the school offers.

With her grandmother out of work for now, Latrice’s paycheck — about $300 every two weeks from the part-time job — helps pay the bills and allows her to buy much-coveted new clothes.

But the job isn’t only about the money. It keeps her occupied in what could otherwise be a dull summer. Most of her friends from Serra live in the bedroom community of Tierrasanta.

“I don’t see them no more because they live out there and they’re mostly going to colleges out of state,” she says.

Meanwhile, Latrice is off to City College in the fall, and hopes to eventually transfer to San Diego State University. At this point, she wants to study criminal investigation or child development, though she is still unsure of what she wants to do with her life.

In the O’Connor’s warehouse, she’s learning what life is like in the working world.

When a church’s candles are burnt out, they bring them to O’Connor’s. They become Latrice’s responsibility.

One by one, she places them in a heating device to melt the remaining wax. Then, they’re put on a power washer built by members of the O’Connor family. The water rushes through about 60 glass candleholders at a time, blasting away any waxy residue around the edges.

Latrice then prepares a wick and pours hot wax into the candleholder. There’s no shortage of this work. Boxes of candles stacked above her head await a cleaning.

Most of her tasks around the building are menial but meaningful.

When she’s not in the warehouse, Latrice also keeps the shop clean, sweeping the storefront as cars and bikes race down the boulevard and sweeping by the back door beneath depictions of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary.

The store’s owner, Jackie O’Connor, says Latrice’s contributions have been invaluable.

“She expects a lot from herself and she does a good job,” she says. “She just simply wants to succeed.”

Latrice is very much in transition. At 18, she’s at that crucial life phase when lives and points of view are shaped.

This fall, the shy, mild-mannered teen is headed to college. She’ll be meeting new people and confronting new challenges.

And, she’s exploring her spirituality. Her grandmother raised her Christian, providing Bible studies at home. The O’Connors’ are Catholic and have taught Latrice a bit about the faith. And, just recently, she visited a Jehovah’s Witness church.

“I’m gonna stay Christian,” she says. “I’m just seeing how the others are.”

I’m a photojournalist for voiceofsandiego.org and this year, I’m exploring El Cajon Boulevard through a photo series we’re calling Tales From the Boulevard. We’ll turn an eye to the people that make this place tick.

If you know of an interesting story that I should tell through my lens, don’t hesitate to call me at 619-550-5664, email me at sam.hodgson@voiceofsandiego.org or follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/samuelhodgson.

Sam Hodgson

Sam Hodgson is a freelance photojournalist and contributor to Voice of San Diego. You can contact him at samhodgsonphoto@gmail.com...

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