Moving beyond the Walls: The Need for Youth Outreach Programs. (Research Update)

Article excerpt

Youth-serving agencies, such as park and recreation departments, have comprehensive potential to promote positive youth development, yet they are often ignored in public policy debate (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1994). This is primarily due to their lack of political clout and marginalized images of their importance and worth among taxpayers and decision-makers (Crompton, 1999). However, park and recreation departments can be a primary community resource for youth prevention and intervention programs. In fact, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1994) found that community leaders held unanimously positive opinions of the value that youth recreation provided. However, even where such programs exist, attracting and involving youth with the highest needs on a consistent basis can be problematic. Therefore, park and recreation departments need to follow the lead of our community recreation founders and work in an outreach capacity directly with youth in their communities.

Moving Beyond the Walls: The Need for Youth Outreach Programs

Some park and recreation departments have recognized that their programs are not meeting the needs of certain youth. In some cities this has led to the development of initiatives that specifically target youth who are not drawn to more traditional recreation programs. There is a growing movement to move youth workers into communities where they can work directly with youth, rather than waiting for youth to take the initiative to go to a fixed program site (Witt & Baker, 1999). This direct-contact method is driven by the recognition of a need for a more individualized approach to youth who feel alienated by more traditional programs. Often this outreach approach necessitates staff taking on a mentoring role, a common characteristic of outreach programs.

Schools and other youth-serving organizations have typically been structured around serving specific groups. As the history of the park and recreation movement illustrates, youth work in its modern guise emerged as a movement designed to fill the perception of a dangerous void created by unsupervised free time. Although this need drove the proliferation of youth-serving organizations during the early part of the 20th century, many people were convinced that these services were only reaching a small percentage of working-class youth, while many others remained involved in undesirable behavior.

Thus, alongside mainstream programs, a renewed focus to find ways of engaging youth who were not attracted to traditional services emerged. As a result, innovative programs designed to engage "dangerous and threatening youth" materialized, particularly programs that engaged youth on their own territory, on the street and other places where they congregated (Jeff, 1997).

Potential for Disconnection

Although the importance of formal youth-serving institutions such as park and recreation departments cannot be underestimated, disconnection is a common phenomenon particularly among youth from lower-class communities. There are a number of barriers that preclude youth participation in programs. Jones (1980) found that even if youth were involved with a youth-serving organization, participation was sporadic. He found two interesting reasons behind this. First, youth clubs sometimes found it too great a challenge to deal with testing and disruptive behavior displayed by participants. In other cases he found that non-participation resulted from a lack of confidence on the part of the youth themselves. This led to youth exhibiting passivity and an unwillingness to cross new thresholds and try new experiences.

Hendry (1991) argued that non-participation in structured recreation organizations is often the result of organizations being too tame, too over-organized, or too much like school to appeal to some youth. Thus, while "conforming youth" may continue to be attracted to these organizations and the adults who run them, other youth may find these organizations unappealing or irrelevant. …