Youth development grows outdoors, at low cost

Print More

To a lot of kids, Jimmy would have been just another worm. But for many of the children in New York’s Central Park Scholars (CPS) program, he was the first earthworm they’d ever seen. Program staffers recall how the kids watched in fascination as his slimy body lay in the grass.

Then, tragedy struck. As the story goes, a youth named Michael was hard at work uprooting the evasive Japanese Knotweed when he heard three girls squeal after he took a step. Michael had snuffed out Jimmy.

Since that day in October, staffers say, the kids have remembered “Jimmy the beloved earthworm” at program events, even putting on a dramatization of his life and death.

The CPS is among a number of youth development programs that are run not at youth centers or at schools, but at urban parks. The youths study animals, plant gardens, play ball, design cars, examine architecture and make crafts.

These arrangements mark a creative evolution for both youth programs and urban parks, which were not originally intended as places for recreation.

“Urban parks began on the English model of pleasure parks, and they were much more for scenic beauty and walking around,” says Peter Witt, professor at Texas A&M University’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism.

Americans began using parks for active recreation in the 1930s, Witt says. That trend continued until after World War II, when wealthy people began fleeing the cities for the suburbs in droves. The leisure activities of park-goers were steadily displaced by crime and vagrancy, Witt says, with the level of violence in urban parks peaking in the 1980s.

But when the economic boom of the 1990s brought more affluent people back to the cities, many parks were rejuvenated, often with private donations from the wealthy.

Today, many organizations that serve poor youth are tapping into the potential of these large public spaces, especially during out-of-school time in the prime outdoor months of summer. “The interest in understanding urban parks and their possibilities for youth development certainly exists,” says Clifton Watts, who works with Witt at Texas A&M.

In Portland, Ore., for instance, the Parks and Recreation Department’s Summer Playground program provides supervised activities for children, such as sports and crafts, while their parents work. In Los Angeles, ARTScorpsLA offers youths summer internships at parks to study such subjects as art and industrial design.

In other places, urban schools partner with nonprofits and parks to provide after-school activities. In Baltimore, some youths go straight from school to local parks to play in the Baltimore Baseball League, under an arrangement among the city Parks and

Recreation Department, the schools and a baseball league run by the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation.

While urban park programs are available for all age groups, teens are the most difficult to attract and retain. Watts, who specializes in youth programming, says the key is giving the youth input into the activities.

ARTScorpsLA allows youth who have been in the program in the past to take leadership roles and mold the summer internship program.

The most common way for nonprofits to fund such parks projects is through partnerships with corporations and foundations, says Ernest Burkeen, director of the Miami Parks and Recreation Department. Parks departments are ideal, of course, because they have local tax dollars and can sometimes tap state funds.

Burkeen says the key to building a financial partnership is to offer something to the contributor. For instance, the Baltimore Orioles baseball team provides significant funding for the Baltimore Baseball League. “For the Orioles … you create lifelong fans who are going to watch TV, go to the games and spend big bucks,” Burkeen says. “It’s self-serving, but it’s OK. That’s a good investment.”

Burkeen also suggests charging program participants at least a nominal fee. “Kids don’t participate if it’s free, because there’s no perceived value,” he says. Some of the Portland Parks’ summer daycare and Rec ‘N Roll Bus activities cost participants 25 cents.

“Even poor people [think] that if it’s free, then it must not be worth anything. But if [there is a] minimal cost, they will attend every day because they’ve paid something and there’s some value associated with it.”

Following are profiles of several youth development programs at urban parks.

Joe Enoch can be reached at

Baltimore Baseball League
Parks and People Foundation
(410) 448-5663

The Approach: Use baseball to teach teamwork, combat stereotypes and instill good academic habits in at-risk youth.

The Baltimore Baseball League (BBL) works with local schools to monitor grades and attendance of the enrolled youths. In order to keep playing, each youth must maintain an overall grade average of at least 75 percent or higher and an attendance rate of at least 95 percent. Coaches receive report cards from the schools.

Youth who don’t meet those requirements “can still practice with the team, but have a two-week period in order to get their grades and attendance up to par,” says Bernie Shephard, sports program coordinator at the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation. “If they don’t, then they’re removed from the team and replaced.”

He says “95 percent” of the youths who get in that situation “realize they want to keep playing, so they make the adjustments to get their grades and attendance up.”

All games are played at parks in Baltimore. The league provides everything the youths need, including bats, gloves, uniforms and transportation. “All you need is a pair of tennis shoes,” Shephard says.

Youth Served: Fourth- through eighth-grade boys and girls. BBL invites certain area schools to join the league, and the schools encourage students who are struggling academically to join.

The number of youth served depends on each year’s funding. There are 480 to 500 youth in the program this year. In 2003, there were nearly two times the number of teams and players, because the league had almost twice as much funding as it does now. The program says it has served 4,000 to 5,000 youth since it was founded in 1992.

Staff: Shephard, a one-time volunteer baseball coach, is the only paid staff member. He has been with the program for eight years and also runs other sports programs, working full-time for the Parks and People Foundation. About 40 coaches are volunteering for the BBL this year.

Funding: The 2005 budget is $47,000. The league is funded by grants from the Abell Foundation and the Baltimore Orioles, and by private donations.

Indicators of Success: Each year, the average school attendance of students in the BBL is higher than the average attendance of all students in those schools, Shephard says. The most recent figures available show that the BBL students had a 96 percent school attendance rate in 2003.

The youths’ academic progress has not been studied. Shepard believes the youths improve their grades, and so does Carmen Holmes, principal of Windsor Hills Elementary School, a member of the BBL.

“The baseball league gives children motivation to achieve academically and behaviorally,” she says. “It improves their level of participation, because they know they have to perform at a certain level behaviorally in order to stay on the team. I can guess that there’s an improvement, just by their demeanor in school. That certainly does have an impact academically.”

Arts Academy
Los Angeles
(213) 481-8013

The Approach: Train youth in three different career paths each summer, while also fostering a respect and desire for beautiful parks in harsh urban neighborhoods.

The academy is a five-week summer internship that runs Monday through Friday for two to three hours each day. This summer, at-risk youths chose to focus on art, industrial design or land. The program takes place in two parks, La Tierra de la Culebra (the land of the snake) and Spiraling Orchard, both in areas of heavy gang activity.

The land unit focused on gardening and teaching holistic approaches to farming. “The kids will actually learn how to create a community garden,” says Jerome Fountain, youth employment coordinator at Arts Academy. “They’ll look at herbs and how they interact … with other herbs and the human the body. They’ll be looking at how to create sustenance from land.”

Youth in the industrial design unit designed and created a model for a concept car to run on ethanol. Some of the youth, who are in ARTScorpsLA, will continue to work on building the car.

Arts interns developed a culture of people that would serve as a model society, with its own forms of art, mythology, poetry and music. After creating the model, they looked at problems of the modern world, such as hunger, war and conflicts over the possession of land, and discussed why those problems occur and how to prevent them.

History: When the program started in 2002, Project Director Melissa Washington says, the academy’s thrust was simply to beautify the two parks. But the academy has evolved with the changing needs of the community into a summer camp-style program. Now that the parks are no longer under construction, Arts Academy is using them as learning zones.

Arts Academy is part of ARTScorpsLA, a nonprofit that has taken art to Los Angeles neighborhoods for 13 years.

Youth Served: Most of the interns are high school juniors and seniors. Fountain says that due to the weak economy of the area, almost all of the youth are at-risk. This summer, there were two five-week sessions, and a total of 120 youths participated. About half of the youths join the program through nonprofit work placement organizations in Los Angeles and are paid by those nonprofits. The rest are volunteers.

Staff: Three directors, who are full-time employees of ARTScorpsLA, and three part-time employees, who are hired for this program. Local artists, craftsmen and teachers help for free or for minimal pay.

Funding: Arts Academy operates on a $10,000 annual budget. Fountain says it uses donated, scrap and recycled materials and refurbished tools and parts, and gets donations from the community. The $10,000 comes out of the budget of ARTScorpsLA, which receives most of its funding from the City of Los Angeles; the Surdna, Dwight Stewart, and Rockefeller foundations; and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Indicators of Success: Fountain admits that the indicators of success are abstract. However, he says, many of the interns return, and some have gotten jobs using the skills they learned at the academy.

Central Park Scholars
Central Park Conservancy
New York
(212) 348-4867

The Approach: A three-year program that uses Central Park as a classroom to help young teens develop as students and conscientious adults.

For three years, the youth apply the math, science, art, history and literary skills they learn in school to real-life scenarios and objectives. The program runs every Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., from October through May.

“It’s an alternative way to learn these topics,” says JoAnn Schneider, training and curriculum coordinator for the Central Park Conservancy (CPC). “Where in a classroom it may have been a drawing board, we’re actually going out and looking.”

The program uses nature, art and experiences from stewardship. Youth learn about the many species of plants and animals that live in the park. Last year, they focused on trees and followed their one-year evolution. They studied animals that live in the trees and how old the trees are, did bark rubbings and studied where the trees came from and how they ended up in Central Park.

The CPS works with two Manhattan art museums – El Museo del Barrio and the Museum of Arts and Design – to teach form and appreciation of art. The youth also study the landscape and building architecture and sculptures in and around Central Park.

They learn the benefits of giving back to the community by volunteering in and around the park.

In the morning, the students participate in educational exercises, either outdoors in the park or in a classroom at a recreation center on the park grounds. In the afternoon, they engage in physical recreation, such as team-building exercises, wall climbing or community service projects.

Youth Served: “Our target student is the student in the middle … a C-average student,” Schneider says. “We saw a lot of programs out there are for college-bound [students], for that A-level potential. … We don’t really see anything for that C-level student, the student who’s passing, but not reaching their full potential.”

About 50 youths will attend the program this year, including new and returning participants. The students come from local schools and are chosen by counselors, teachers and parents. They need a letter of recommendation from a teacher or guidance counselor to join. They are expected to attend every week and must maintain an 80 percent program attendance rate.

Staff: The CPS is run by two full-time and two part-time CPC staffers, plus up to four volunteers.

Funding: For 2005, the program will cost about $100,000. Most of the funding comes from the Louis Calder and Altman foundations, Schneider says.

Indicators of Success: A test conducted before and after the program last year found that participants developed a greater interest in nature and literature.

Rec ’n Roll Bus
Portland Parks and Recreation
Portland, Ore.
(503) 823-7529

The Approach: Using a bus donated by TriMet, Portland’s public transportation company, the Rec ’n Roll bus rolls into Portland’s urban parks with crafts, games, physical activities and counselors.

The Rec ’n Roll staff brings all the necessary supplies, including sprinklers, athletic equipment and craft materials for the three- to four-hour sessions. For some of the crafts, the kids need to cover the 25-cent fee.

“We try to do active things or projects that … are really messy, so you wouldn’t want to do them at home,” says Joanne Larsell, supervisor of the Rec ’n Roll bus.

The bus visits two sites a day for eight weeks in the summer. It is on a regular schedule, so parents and youth can count on it to arrive at specific times and places.

“Even though it’s a playground program, it feels like it’s a special event coming to you, because the bus is bright green. We have our own song a local songwriter wrote for us,” Larsell says.

History: The program was started to address the void of programming in various Portland parks, particularly in the city’s east side. Planning began in 1999 and the program started rolling in 2000.

Youth Served: The bus does not serve any particular age, race or income bracket. However, it does go to parks in poorer neighborhoods. Last year the bus served 3,200 kids, Larsell says.

Staff: One full-time bus driver, Director Laura Pagenstecher, and four part-time staffers.

Funding: Portland Parks spends $16,000 a year for staff and materials. Aside from the recreation department, some money comes from donations and grants, which Larsell says average $3,000 a year. TriMet spends $18,000 annually for bus maintenance and donates $500 annually for supplies, says TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. The Amalgamated Transit Union Division 757 pays the nearly $6,400 summer salary of the bus driver and also donates $1,000 a year for supplies, says division President Al Zullo.

Indicators of Success: “We believe that crime is less when we’re in a neighborhood, because the kids are with us doing something that’s positive,” Larsell says. “The police will agree to that, but there’s no way to put statistics to it.”