/ By Tamieka Briscoe /
When it comes to the YMCA, the highly recognizable “Y” symbol may bring several images to mind: the neighborhood fitness center, aquatics lessons, or many other recreational activities designed for youth and adults. In Long Beach, California, one of the nation’s most diverse cities, and the third poorest city in Los Angeles County, the Youth Institute of Long Beach supports the organization’s mantra that the Y is “more than a gym.” In fact, you won’t find a pool or any fitness equipment on their campus, located in Long Beach’s poorest community. But you will find state of the art technology at the Youth Institute, started in 2001. And young people from the Youth Institute and the technology skills they’ve acquired were on full display during Upswell LA.
Operated by the YMCA of Greater Long Beach, the Youth Institute (YI) is a year-round program that engages urban high school youth of color through teaching them the latest in digital storytelling, digital graphics, digital music production, product design, 3D printing, and more. And outside of its facilities, you’ll find a basketball court and about 5,000 square feet of space where the youth participate in outdoor sports and activities.
The project is comprised of two components —the Year Round After School Youth Institute, and the Summer Youth Institute. Parent involvement is strong at the Youth Institute, which also offers social services and ESL services in addition to technology courses.
Bob Cabeza, Vice President and founder of Youth Institute and the social enterprise Change Agent Productions, said that he started the Youth Institute in response to the LA riots. Working with funders, they wanted to give high school youth an opportunity to develop both academic and workforce skills to heal their communities.
Dropout prevention is at the core of the work. The program is designed to teach students skills over the summer that they can use throughout the school year to become better students, while learning job skills they can build on for a good career. Ultimately the goal is to prepare students academically and socially for college. Celebrities like hip hop artist Snoop Dogg have mentored the youth.
“The idea is to level the playing field, and to get the students into college.” Cabeza said. Cabeza has worked with low-income youth for over 30 years and said that it is important to provide youth of color who have been disengaged with equity and opportunity.
Ninety-six percent of the youth from the YI program graduate from high school, in comparison to 71 percent of Long Beach youth with similar demographics. The majority (86 percent) of YI youth enroll in a two- or four-year college or trade school, while only 43 percent of their Long Beach peers do so.
The annual summer program begins in June and is open to Long Beach youth in grades 8 through 10 from low-income families. There is a new cohort of around 100 youth every summer. The fulltime, seven-week summer program is the prerequisite for the year-round after-school program.
The summer program kicks off with a wilderness retreat. “It’s important to understand, this is not camping, it’s a wilderness experience,” Cabeza said. “They sleep on the ground, hike, climb…help one another.” Cabeza said they use lanterns, chop wood, and build camp fires where they talk about issues that affect them during the week-long retreat at the Mammoth Lake YMCA Wilderness Camp.
The Youth Institute also engages teens in nontraditional sports like snowboarding, which Cabeza said is important because sports are a social aspect of the college experience.
“We take them on activities like snowboarding, so that when they go to these top-tier schools they can relate to their middle-income peers who have done these activities most of their lives.” Other activities they engage in include surfing, archery, golf, and kayaking—all of which they might not ever have had access to if not for the program.
Following the wilderness retreat, students spend weekdays learning hard technology skills, and have the opportunity to showcase them to the community during an annual film festival where they debut 3D projects, independently produced films, and a magazine they work on all summer. The program is free, and the youth earn money for participating in the program and for work on various creative projects they are hired to complete. According to Cabeza, many of the youth use part of their earnings to help their families.
At Upswell LA, the Youth Institute engaged attendees with demonstrations of Photoshop, film editing, photography, and 3D printing skills. Several of the youth also participated in a panel discussion moderated by Kevin Washington, President and CEO of the YMCA of the USA, where they talked about the challenges of being a teenager and what they are learning at the Y.
The program has a pay-it-forward model. With a staff of seven during the school year, and 22 in the summer, every employee of the Youth Institute of Long Beach was once a youth in the program. There are 12 replication sites throughout the world, all staffed by alum.
The holiday season can be particularly tough. “Organizations tend to forget about high schoolers during the holidays,” Cabeza said, adding that charities like Toys for Tots and other programs focus on providing gifts for younger children and that high schoolers tend to feel left out when their families can’t afford gifts. The families with limited resources too often focus the attention on the younger siblings, causing the teens to take a backseat.
The teens say that the staff and peers at the Y are like family. The leaders echo the sentiment and work tirelessly to create opportunities for the youth and to make them feel valued. During the holiday season, particularly, staff at the Y concentrate on identifying partnerships and sponsors for gifts and activities to help provide the youth with an extra feeling of family.
Tamieka Briscoe is an associate at Independent Sector.