High-Roller Youth Services Offer Views, Activities Bill of Fare

Jill Wolfson
November 1, 1997

Founded by Bing Crosby and nurtured by actor and former Mayor Clint Eastwood, Carmel Youth Center occupies some of the nation's most expensive seaside real estate overlooking Point Lobos on the Monterey Peninsula. Only a short, pleasant stroll away are the upscale boutiques and pricey restaurants of this square mile picture postcard town.

On a summer afternoon inside the 20,000-square foot center, a young man in a wheelchair had the sparkling, newly remodeled gym to himself as he practiced free throws. In the snack bar, three young men sat talking in a booth that offered a view of surf smashing against the rocks of Point Lobos. Downstairs, a handful of boys in their early teens shot pool and a few others worked out in a 1,500 square foot weight room that would be the pride of any tony health club. It was established by Eastwood who sometimes shows up to work-out.

In its wealth of facilities and programs, the Carmel center typifies those to be found in affluent communities around the country, what might be regarded as "high-roller" services compared to the often overcrowded, under-staffed, and under-funded youth centers in many urban and rural locales which have to justify every dime they seek.

Need to Justify Funding

The irony of the disparity in services is apparent to Pat Kelly in her capacity as an evaluator of projects for the Eisenhower Foundation in Washington. D.C, and for other agencies. "Poorer families want the same as the rich for their kids." She observes, "…programs to help make them better people and also to give them something to do. But when it comes to poor communities, we somehow lose that concept. We constantly ask them to prove that the money the government is investing in a swimming pool. or in midnight basketball, or whatever, is justified. I don't know why it is that we have a different set of rules for our own kids versus somebody else's kids.

"A lot of people with money build their own swimming pools and tennis courts and even private libraries. Those are things poorer folks have to look to the government to provide. But there's something about the American psyche that we don't want to use 'our' money for other people even though we want the same things for our kids that these poor communities want for their kids. There is something about taking tax-payer money and distributing it to people who don't have it that is changing in America."

Today, in many places, public and private funding sources for children are shrinking. Youth workers are all scrambling for a piece of the grant pie and must constantly justify the need for their programs. Many inner-city public schools, no longer able to afford the "extras." have all but eliminated after-school sports and arts programs. Local governments are pulling back more and more of their recreation department services.

Yet, youth in the country's most affluent neighborhoods can still count on accessing a wide range of innovative programs, activities and events. While living in such wealthy areas doesn't protect them from the harsher realities of life — divorce, stress, drugs, gangs — it certainly offers more extensive and better-funded options for contending with them.

For instance, in affluent settings like Carmel-By-The-Sea, the public and private schools can typically afford to sponsor myriad after-school enrichment and sports programs. Parents can pay for the music lessons, ski trips and other activities that "keep kids off the streets." And when youth do get into trouble with drugs and alcohol, they don't have to get on waiting lists for overcrowded county treatment pro- grams. Parents send them to private treatment centers that are out of reach of the poor.

This privilege extends to public services as well.

Wealth of Services

In Fairfax County, Va., a bedroom suburb of the nation's capital, there are seven community centers and a county funded teen center in each of the nine magisterial districts. The centers offer an impressive "cafeteria-style" of recreation, "not just sports but art, music, drama,” says Teen Center Operations Manager Marge Battaglia. The centers are typically equipped with computers and snack bars. Several offer a disco-style "nightclub," complete with black felt on the walls and strobe lights.

In one of Fairfax County's wealthier planned communities, teens were loitering at a shopping district and annoying customers so the businessmen influenced local government to establish a teen center a block away. There's even a bus to transport the youth.

In Lower Merion Township, Pa., the prestigious "Main Line” of Philadelphia, the recreation department manages 35 parks, a wide array of sports camps and drop-in centers. There is a lot of collaboration with the area's public schools, which themselves offer abundant sports and after-school programs.

"I can offer things here that I couldn't where I worked in my previous job." says Donna Heller, the township recreation supervisor who held a similar post in a lower-income, working class city. "Here, I can offer an $80 music class because I know that the parents are willing to pick up the extra cost." This is also the case in Aspen, Colo., one of the country's top ten "Richest Towns," according to Worth Magazine. User fees cover 50 percent of the expenditures of the recreation department. With a $700,000 annual operating budget, the department offers day camps and most team sports, plus sailing classes, use of a 3,200 square-foot climbing wall and a $400,000 ice rink that's "bursting at the seams with kids' programs, according to Aspen Recreation Director Tim Anderson, who has been at this job for six years. "We have a huge tax base here (city programs come out of the general sales tax fund) and the city is very supportive. We have no problem with sports sponsorships."

The Money Game: Solved

Fund raising — the bane of all youth workers — also seems to get a jump-start in places where income is high. The Boys and Girls Club of Troy, Mich., outside of Detroit, raises funds by holding special events suited for an affluent suburb — a golf tournament and a community-supported "Taste of Troy.' Dozens of local restaurants prepare meals and donate profits to the club.

The main fund-raiser for the Carmel Youth Center is the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament. Once a year, 300 local volunteers staff the concession stands at the upscale event. In return, the Pebble Beach Company "donates" about $50,000 to the youth center. That's the bulk of the year's operating budget made in one weekend.

When the city of Aspen decided it needed a teen center, community members joined together to-raise $1 million to build the three-story Aspen Youth Center. The non-profit center sits on prime downtown land and boasts a game room, TV room and a dance floor complete with disc jockey booth. The first floor houses a for-profit, full-service restaurant that hires youth and offers courses in food service and food management.

The center's program director, Eric Brendlinger, says that the center operates with a "program-based" philosophy. They don't just open the doors and “let the kids hang out." Roller Hockey Leagues, special crafts days. Friday night dances, off-site "Hikes of the Week" and an outdoor awareness program are on the bill of fare.

The center also runs a delinquency deferral program for first time offenders who are ordered to put in community service, hours and organizes in-town projects or work "that provides the kids with an education in the outdoors," says Brendlinger.

Rocky ML High

"The center got started after the release of an alcohol and drug use survey," recounted Brendlinger. "The whole town got very concerned that here we are in a beautiful resort town, yet rate of alcohol and drug abuse of the kids here was higher than the national average. There is a total misconception that the grass is totally green for the kids here. There's a lot of stress. It can be a real detriment to grow up in a place like Aspen, surrounded by wealth, where you can have a distorted view of reality.'

This sentiment was echoed by youth workers in affluent settings across the country.

Says Carmel's Pat Lenz: "People are under the wrong impression that it's only the poor kids. the kids Who come from urban neighborhoods who need a place like this. We have kids here who have gotten pregnant, kids who have been abused, kids from broken homes. Often the parents are working so hard to maintain their lifestyle that they aren't around much. Some of them give their kids a car and they think that it's enough. But in some ways, the fact that the kids often have money means they have more access to drugs, cars, the very things that can get them into trouble."

Pockets of Poverty

Steve Toth, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Troy, which serves several hundred children a day at the site of a former school building, agrees; "It's perceived that these kids must have all they need. There's a real denial that they, too, can have low self-esteem. At a club in, say, downtown Detroit, the needs are certainly more basic. But the kids here still need a safe haven, a place where they can build self-esteem. A lot of them aren't getting feedback from their parents. Maybe they come from a single-parent family and that parent has to work all the time in order to live where they do. Maybe their parents don't know how to do it."

Youth workers in affluent areas point out another misconception about their work. When outsiders look around, they see rolling suburban lawns, well-dressed children, upscale shopping centers and well-funded public and private schools. What they don't see are the hidden pockets of poverty.

For instance, Carmel-By-The-Sea caters primarily to tourists and wealthy retirees; there are only about 100 children under age 18 living in the city proper. "However, we aren't just trying to reach the few kids in town, but those who live 20 miles away in Big Sur or way out in Carmel Valley" says Lenz. "There's poverty there."

The same applies to Virginia's 400-square mile Fairfax County where 'the number of families and single people living below the poverty level has increased by 22 percent since 1980. Children make up the largest group of those living in poverty and their number is growing .... The number of children qualifying for free and reduced price lunches in the county public schools more than doubled since 1990, according to a recent Fairfax-Falls Church "State of the Community Report.”

Aspen's Brendlinger points out that there is a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots in his community. On the one hand, there are the celebrities and the families who live in multi-million dollar houses, while there are parents who have to work double shifts, often catering to the wealthy families, in order to afford to live in their home-town. Sometimes the parents are working so hard that they wind up neglecting their children. "We get both kinds of kids coming to the center." He says. "They may have different reasons but they can both feel lonely, bored, isolated. They both need a safety net."

Competing with the Aged

Like their counterparts in low-income areas, youth workers in affluent settings are feeling the effects of a national demographic shift: the aging of the population. According to the Fairfax County report, "the reality is that as demand for services for the elderly increases and competition for limited resources grows, the challenge to assure that all our children and youth have the support they need will be greater than ever."

Lenz says that he has experienced this firsthand. As the population of Carmel has aged. the town has become less and less "child-oriented." Children are not welcome to "hang out" at the downtown park. They can't skateboard in town. They can't have bonfires at the beach. "The recreation department has essentially cut programs for kids in order to have programs for seniors," says Lenz. "It's not that I blame them. That's who the taxpayers are. They don't see any reason to support kids they don't have."

Youth workers say that working in affluent areas can even backfire when it comes to finding funding. In applying for grants, there's an attitude of "why are you asking us for money? Go ask the millionaire down the block."

"Yes. I work in a wealthy area." says Brendlinger. "But there are a hundred great non-profits in this small" town and there are only so many pockets to go to. You can only tap the same people so many times."

Toth describes Troy as a “challenge. You have to be subtle. The foundations just assume that the money is here in the community."

Lenz agrees. "I'll get a donation for $500 from a local organization, but that Same organization will give $5.000 to the Boys and Girls Club in Seaside. The perception is that the need is greater there."

Ironically the town of Seaside has reaped the benefits of being the "poor" cousin in a rich community. Seaside is only a few minutes drive from Carmel, but it is worlds away in terms of demographics. There is a large ethnic mix and a high percentage of unemployed merit. With the closing of nearby Fort Ord, the town has been under even more stress: more unemployment, more gang problems. Observant citizens might find it hard to pass by Seaside on the way to a round of golf at Pebble Beach and not feel at least a twinge of guilt.

Until 1994, the Boys and Girls Club of Seaside was a typical youth center in a depressed area: very small, serving 400 children and operating out of a run-down building. Today, whether by guilt or by a generosity or a combination of both, the money from nearby Carmel built a new 24,000-square-foot facility. Now, the club reaches further into the neighboring farm-worker communities and serves 2,200 annually with a full range of programs. There are 12 full-time and 12 part-time employees, plus a volunteer staff of 300. The annual operating budget is $850,000.

Executive Director Martin Barrett joined the club when ground was being broken on the $2.5 million dollar building.

"Most of the fund-raising came from the residents and foundations of Carmel and Pebble Beach," he says. "We get a large base of our board from there. I think I understand why some of these people started with nothing. They look back on their own lives and. see that they were helped or influenced by a youth worker or a boys club. We are lucky to reap some of their desire to give something back."


‘High-Roller’ Youth Services Offer Views, Activities Bill of Fare: A 'Security Blanket' Called Clint Eastwood

Wolfson, Jill. "‘High-Roller’ Youth Services Offer Views, Activities Bill of Fare." Youth Today, November/December 1997, p. 48 - 51.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.