Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Building Better ADULTS

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Building Better ADULTS

Article excerpt

Creating places, programs, and people that youth can depend on is key to keeping them engaged.

Standing on an outcropping of rocks with 10 kids at the South Rim of Big Bend National Park in Texas, the adult leader of the group, Jason Bocarro, was goofing around and admiring the scenery. One of the kids, a 15-year-old from a rough section of Austin, Texas, was overwhelmed by the moment and said, "I hope there is a program like this for my kids one day."

Bocarro looked at him and explained that he was missing the point. "My job is to give you the skills for you to do this with your kids." The 15-year-old slyly smiled in recognition, and realized the purpose of the trip wasn't just to hike and camp, but to build life skills using recreation as a medium.

It was a moment that neither of them ever forgot.

The trip was part of a city program in Austin called Roving Leaders-an initiative that sent park and recreation professionals into neighborhoods to engage youth. Once the leaders built relationships, they'd also take the youngsters on trips to national or state parks.

Bocarro says that it was similar to an Outward Bound program. But in Austin, staff established a deeper connection with the teens that made all the difference.

"You really have to be thinking about things in terms of relationship development when it comes to youth," he says. "It takes time and can be frustrating, but when you understand that there are so many outside influences on them, you see you just have to be good role models."

Providing Places

In today's world, where in one weekend during March, 36 people died from gun violence in Chicago, providing safe places for youth to find fun rather than trouble is growing more important. Recreation superintendent Ted Stevens from Long Beach, Calif., knows this all too well. The city had seen a 37-year low in gang-related homicides, but in February and March, a number of high-profile shootings spurred the city to take more action, and the park and recreation department is taking a lead role.

In fact, $400,000 in grants was just awarded to the city's Weed and seed program, a multi-department initiative that targets Long Beach's most crimeridden areas. The money will help create two new "safe havens" for youth, which are both community centers run by parks and recreation.

"These will be places where youth and teens can go and do activities," Stevens says. "We are in the process of installing computer labs and have already started paying for dance instructors to teach hip-hop dance, crumping [a form of urban dance], and other things that the kids enjoy."

Stevens says that this formula has already been proven successful at the Homeland Cultural Arts Center in MacArthur Park, where hundreds of people a day from all across the city participate in a variety of classes all housed in one building.

Long Beach is also providing a safe place for youth to go at night instead of hanging out on the streets. Through a free program called Midnight Basketball, youth compete with other teams in a basketball league, but with one catch-all players are required to participate in education sessions held between games that focus on job training and learning life skills. There are more than 60 young adults ages 18 to 24 involved, and the program offers a safe alternative to the sometimes violent streets.

"I know we've been successful because a few of the participants have gone on to college," Stevens says. "They did that because of some of these educational sessions."

Stevens acknowledges that good programming is key, but it has to start with safe places. "We have a gang issue like any big city, but we are working hard to make it safe."

Bocarro agrees. As an assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University, he has heard from parent focus groups in Durham, N.C. …

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