How Bresee Youth Center Took the High Tech Road

Bill Howard
November 1, 1995


An automated identification system conceived by its young inner city members —along with graphic arts and other innovative products — has launched the Bresee Youth Center onto a high tech fast track as one of the most innovation in youth development programs in the nation.

Today, every one of the center's more than 1,000 participants carries a plastic identification (ID) card with their color photo and a bar code number that can be scanned electronically. Manufactured by the members, the card serves as a key mechanism for not only recording attendance but their academic achievements in Bresee's homework and computer labs.

The center has installed an educational incentive system based on "points" earned by completing study assignments. One hundred points equals about a dollar and students may, in turn, bank them and earn more in interest, spend them at the center's snack bar and store or even borrow more points by paying interest under a loan agreement.

"It's a way for our kids to learn how the banking and credit systems work," says Jeff Carr, Bresee Youth Center's 31-year-old founder and director who is an ordained minister in the Nazarene Church that houses the center. "Nobody teaches kids in school how to do this."

Like most of the center’s programs — indeed, for the center's very existence near downtown L.A. — a modest Carr claims the inspiration has come from us young constituents drawn from the largely Latino and African American mid-Western and South Central sections of the city. These same sections were engulfed by rioting and arson in 1992 following acquittal of the policemen charged with the notorious beating of Rodney King. For example, the automated and banking system sprang from a 15-year-old girl's comment one evening a couple of years ago that "we ought to have a Bresee Visa card."

When Carr asked why, the teenager replied: "I want to go to Disneyland next Friday night (on a Bresee outing). It costs 2500 points and 1 only have 2000. All I need is 500 points and I want to borrow them. You know I'm here every day working on my homework and you know I'll do what it takes to pay them too."

Saving Recordkeeping Time

So Carr, who has a keen ear for what young people say and is widely regarded in Los Angeles as one of youth work's most able managers, convened the girl and a couple of more youths in his office for a brainstorming session. They began kicking out ideas, starting with ID cards that could be scanned electronically like they do products at Von's checkout counter next door."

"I wound up making some calls to find out what it would cost. Then we got the money and went ahead. So here we are now: the kids are producing the ID cards with a photo digitizer and a laminating machine. We have handheld bar code scanners in all the program activities, rooms, and store.

"We give points for academic achievement, for projects in our learning center or in the computer lab and also give bonus points for good evaluations on their school report cards. Checks are then written to students for a certain amount of points that are due them which they then deposit into our bank at the Youth Center. There is a one-day hold on the deposits. If they keep a minimum of 1600 points in their account it becomes an interest-bearing account.

"The bank's computer is linked to the store's so they can use their points to purchase items like candy bars, snacks, caps, and jackets. Kids can now apply for a line of credit as well." In 1994, some 400 youth earned 242,493 points.

The credit system was worked out over four months by a vice president of the Sanwa Bank of California, one of Bresee's 43 corporate sponsors, and some of the youth leaders at the center. They reviewed what characteristics would make someone a good-credit risk and eventually decided on proof of academic effort as the sole basis for borrowing up to 1500 points at 7 percent interest.

Carr says high tech has brought the center another benefit.

"Before we were like every other youth program in the country with sign-in sheets that take a staff person a lot of time to log in manually. Now, attendance at all activities is recorded by the scanners and downloaded over-night to the main computer. What used to tie up a staff person for 25 to 30 hours every week on recordkeeping is now down to less than five."

The entire system operates on special computer software written for Bresee, which owns the copyright. It was developed by one of Carr's many volunteer helpers in local businesses. Carr says he's thinking of marketing it to other youth agencies and some, like the Al Wooten Heritage Center across town (see adjoining page), are eager to apply it to their own programs.

To youth workers who know him, the manner in which the high tech system was created was typically Carr's. "Jeff is very responsive to kids, and really understands them," says Diana Nave, the city's chief youth advocate. "Plus, he has a wonderful ability to work with a variety of people and groups."

Genesis of a Youth Program

A native of Seattle who attended Northwest Nazarene College in Boise, Idaho, on a soccer scholarship, Carr arrived in Los Angeles in 1987 to attend graduate school at the Bresee Institute. It is named after Phineas F. Bresee, a former radical Methodist minister who founded the First Church of the Nazarene as a Protestant evangelical denomination in a store front on Skid Row here just a century ago in October 1895.

Nationwide and in several countries overseas, the church currently has a total congregation of 1 million members with a long-standing commitment to help the poor. This was a major asset in Carr's development of the youth center — both in initial financing and in the availability of willing interns drawn from the church to serve as volunteer youth workers.

Once packed with 700 Anglo parishioners, L.A.’s swiftly changing demographics have transformed the First Church into a multiethnic congregation. Now there is one congregation for 200 Anglos and others for Spanish-speaking, Filipino, and Korean followers of Nazarene. The four groups own the church building that also houses the Bresee Youth Center and share membership on its board of directors.

In his first years, Carr had operated a traditional sports and recreation program at the church, that has an indoor gym and near full-sized basketball court, a couple of nights a week. He recalls spending a lot of time with kids out in the community and learning they had a host of other needs besides recreation.

What he found most magnetic to the kids, however, was the big red brick church building itself. It represented a refuge from their violence-tossed neighborhoods. “Kids were telling me they didn’t have any safe place to hang out after school and they loved to come in here to the church because it was safe. And they were saying “wouldn’t it be neat if we could come here every day after school? And there were things we could do and get help with our homework.”

Carr said that this set him to thinking and dreaming about starting up a youth center, and in the summer of 1989 “I really got serious about it in terms of trying to figure out how we would pay for something like that. And what it would look like and what kinds of things we would offer and whether we could get space from the church.”

Somewhat to his surprise, the church agreed to give him the whole third floor of the sanctuary (he had asked for only one room) – some 3,300 square feet. By the fall of 1989, he was able to raise enough funds to begin remodeling the space and hire another staff person. Bresee Youth Center opened June 4, 1990 with about 10 kids, Carr and a prayer.

Since then, attendance has exploded even though there is no sign on the church that is houses a center. Word of mouth was enough to enroll 100 teenagers by the end of 1990. The number jumped to 300 in 1991, 526 in 1992, 859 in 1993, and to 959 last year. This year total enrollment is well over 1,000. “Spacewise we’re maxed out and can’t handle any more kids,” says Carr. “I’ve got to find another facility.”

He estimates current daily attendance at 60 to 100 youths with an average of 500 dropping in one or more times every month.

Right from the program’s start, Carr has been an advocate of teaching youths how to use computers – especially after learning that most of the students in the area didn’t have access to them at school.

“If these kids don’t understand how to use technology, don’t have access to technology, they will be totally locked out. So we’re just trying to even up the odds a little bit,” he said during an interview in his cluttered office that started out six years ago as a weight room for the new center.

Foundations Back Program

Today, Bresee Youth has a staff of 10 youth workers and the services of 60 volunteers. It operates as an arm of the P.F. Bresee Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that Carr has headed up since last January as executive director. The youth center’s budget hovers around $500,000 a year – money raised by Carr from hundreds of private donors, in special public events like golf tournaments, from corporate sponsors, and private foundations.

Only some $200,000 – less than 5 percent of the total – now comes from the Nazarene Church, most of in contributions from individual congregations. There’s no steady pipeline from the church, he said. Thus, foundation assistance is critical.

Recently, the center became part of the James Irvine Foundation’s youth development resource project and is receiving a $100,000 over two years. Twenty-two other California-based foundations, including Ralph M. Parsons, Ahmanson, and the Price and Roth Family Foundations lend their support.

The center receives $60,000-plus a year from the Los Angeles Youth Advocacy Program to tutor 40 to 50 first-time juvenile offenders referred by law enforcement officials and for graffiti removal. In May, it also contracted with the Foshay Learning Center, part of the Los Angeles Education Partnership, to provide a Bresee staffer who teaches literacy to students at their campus and guides them into Bresee Youth Center activities. This increases the center’s enrollment by yet another 70 kids.

Emerging Graphic Arts Biz

Thanks to new equipment purchased with donations after the 1992 riots, the computer lab offers everything from basic computer literacy training to word processing, database and spread sheets and many other kinds of software, including graphics. The latter prompted the launching last year of a graphic design business with training help from the Walt Disney Imagineering Division, another corporate sponsor.

Paid $6 an hour, the 8 to 10 young designers produce the Bresse Foundation annual report and its brochures and do work for local businesses. Their biggest job to date has been production of a newsletter, Summertime, for the City of Los Angeles’ summer jobs program over the past two years. Upwards of 16,000 copies of the newsletter, that covered the types of work and program news in various sections of the city, were distributed with paychecks.

“We’re trying to get a consultant to develop the graphics business,” Carr said. “I’d love to make it profitable.”

The project is part of an overall effort by the center to help young men and women learn how to make the transition from school to workplace. Because jobs are hard to find in the community, Carr also has created some at the center to give kids an opportunity to work, put some money in their pockets, and gain a sense of accomplishment. “We now have our young people employed in our store, the bank, computer lab and learning center,” he said. “We also have some foundation money to expand what we’re doing in employment, pre-employment training, and some career and college workshop stuff, plus exposing kids to different careers on field trips to corporations and businesses.”

Carr has developed a $40,000-a-year scholarship program that has supported five Bresee graduates in colleges so far. The second one to graduate from college, 24-year-old Ron Forth, returned to Bresee in January as director of sports and recreation. “Ron said one of his long-term goals was to help more kids and the second was to acquire the skills so he could take over my job. I told him that would be great. He could have it sooner than he thinks.”

On the Road

Carr, who is married but has no children of his own, likes to mount expeditions of Bresee youth out of town and around the country. He’s taken them camping in the Idaho wilderness and white water rafting in Colorado.

In 1993, he led a group of 15 on a historic tour of the civil rights movement with stops in Memphis and Atlanta en route to the 30th Anniversary of the March on Washington that ended at the Lincoln Memorial. “It was awesome. I’d love to take kids to South Africa some day.”

Why is the non-sectarian Bresee Youth enter so popular?

Basically, Carr feels, because most of the kids regard it as a safe place to be. Plus, the program is continually being shaped in response to their interests.

“We don’t have a formal counseling program because that’s not what kids said they wanted. What they said they want or needed are the things we have,” Carr said. “It helps us in terms of their involvement. This is a place where kids think they have some degree of control and the opportunity to make decisions about what happens around here. And they know the people here care about them.”

Howard, Bill. "How Bresee Youth Center Took the High Tech Road." Youth Today, November/December 1995, p. 24.

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