Got Busted? On Drugs? In a Gang?

Getting arrested for violating the curfew here earns kids a police escort to court – a huge one, with a shiny wood floor and crisp white nets hanging from the rims. 

The youths begin arriving in police custody after midnight at the Desert West Community Center, a bright, clean complex of indoor hoops, pool tables and TVs. The cops drop the kids off and get back on the beat; the teens play or hang out; and the center’s youth workers get a shot at reaching teens who are grappling with everything from academic failure and domestic violence to drugs and gangs.  

If you’re a kid headed for trouble or already there, the Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department wants you: shoplifters, dropouts and truants, kids with gang tattoos, kids suspended from school, graffiti vandals and pregnant teens.  

While rec agencies around the country sharpen their focus on at-risk kids, perhaps none have gone as far as Phoenix. The nation’s seventh largest city (pop. 1.2 million) has redefined the role of rec departments through diversion and community service programs for adjudicated youth, job training, drug counseling, dropout prevention, finding shelter for homeless or abused kids, and removing their tattoos with a laser.  

While the agency wins nationwide praise, there have been rough spots. Police were furious when rec took over the Police Activities League (PAL), and some within the department have griped that the agency is stepping beyond its expertise. “As long as I’ve been director, people have been coming in and saying, ‘It’s not your job,'” says Department Director James Colley, who has headed the department for 21 years. “My answer is, whose job is it?”  

More rec departments are making it their jobs: In Austin, Tex., the Roving Leaders program turns rec staffers into detached youth workers who spend days and nights reaching kids in underserved neighborhoods. In Charlotte, N.C., the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department coordinates tutoring and life-skills study for homeless kids. And the Detroit Recreation Department was rebuilt partly through millions of dollars in foundation grants to focus on at-risk youth (“Once Wrecked Rec. Dept. Back on Track in Detroit,” May 1998).  

“There’s been an understanding in the past 20 years, particularly in the ’90s, by recreation departments that they need to get involved in wide scale prevention, and begin to do diversion and intervention,” says Peter Witt, a recreation researcher who holds the Elda K. Bradberry chair in At Risk Youth Programing at Texas A&M University.  

Witt sees this movement not as straying from recreation’s core mission, but returning to its roots: “If you look at the history of the park and recreation field from the late 1800s, you find that the entire movement came out of dealing with disadvantaged neighborhoods – situations where kids were having trouble.”  

In going back to those roots, Witt says, Phoenix “has been as aggressive as anyone.”  

Beyond Playtime  

As he drives around Phoenix, Manny Tarango knows that the average person would not expect to find the At Risk Youth Division that he heads in a recreation department. “We’ve always been the bats and balls people,” he says.  

But 100 years ago, those bats and balls were seen as crucial to keeping youths out of trouble. In the early 1900s, police in Massachusetts, West Virginia, Louisiana and California were crediting recreation programs with reducing delinquency, according to research conducted by Witt. Then came a post-World War II movement among rec departments to meet public demand for more open space and recreation activities in their communities, Witt says. The expanding middle class wanted to play, and “there began to be some erosion in the involvement [of rec departments] with the most needy in the community.”  

The erosion deepened in the 1970s, when widespread municipal budget cuts prompted many departments to focus on services for which they could charge fees, like dance lessons and softball tournaments (leaving the diamonds inaccessible to local kids while adults locked up the prime time slots). Meanwhile, playgrounds and other rec facilities in poor urban neighborhoods shut down or deteriorated.  

But by the 1980s, increased societal focus on youth problems such as drugs, crime and sex left rec departments open to questions about how they were using their resources to serve vulnerable kids. “Folks came in at budget meetings and said, ‘What are you going to do about this stuff?'” Witt says. Many rec departments shifted attention back to poor and at risk youth.  

For Phoenix, change came slowly at first: a youth center in south Phoenix (in response to complaints from youth about a lack of activities) and a mobile program that brought recreation programs to underserved neighborhoods. But the needs of youth outstripped such steps as the city’s population boomed through the ’80s, along with juvenile arrests, teen pregnancy and drop outs.  

Colley, who had directed parks and recreation departments in Norfolk, Va., and Douglas, Ga. (his native state), believed rec departments had to tackle youth delinquency issues, but knew it would be politically tricky both inside and outside the agency. In 1991, he declared that reaching at-risk youth – defined by a youth’s family and community environment as much as by behavior – would be a department priority. He created an At Risk Youth Task Force. And he encouraged Mayor Paul Johnson to hold “Summit on Youth” in 1993, which brought together local youth with political, civic and business leaders.  

Some youths lambasted the city for focusing on negative youth behavior while not offering enough positive alternatives. Adult speakers offered ideas about the role that rec departments can play in prevention. “It opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Colley says.  

Later that year, the department created the At Risk Youth Division. “He was not a popular director when he did this,” says assistant director Dale Larsen.  

Risk-Taking Adults  

Colley gathered rec staffers to explain that issues such as pregnancy, drug use and crime would now be a core part of their business, and that some department functions – such as the South Phoenix Youth Center – would fall under the new division. “It was pretty sensitive,” he says. Some staff said Colley was turning them into counselors and social workers.  

Four rec staffers moved to the At Risk Division; a fifth told Colley no. “A lot of people in rec were resentful or cynical, wondering what this new division was up to,” says Dee Dee Woods, director of the South Phoenix Youth Center.  

A key administrator left. “She felt I’d moved too far from the tradition of a parks and recreation department,” Colley says. Dealing with drugs, sex and domestic abuse, she told him, “is not our job. That’s social services.”  

Some, however, embraced the idea. Pam Smith, who has a degree in recreation and worked at the Los Angeles rec department before coming to Phoenix, says that when recreation agencies turned more toward “games and sports, I felt that we missed the boat. … If you’re not into playing checkers and sports, you don’t fit.” She’s now a coordinator in the at risk division, overseeing programs aimed at first offenders, graffiti vandals and truants.  

The Rec Department tries to insure that its attention to at-risk youth does not sap resources from its traditional youth development programs for all kids. “We’re just a small part of what [the Rec Department] provides to the community,” Tarango says of his division.  

The division’s mission makes it stand out within the department like a unicorn at the zoo. The other standout is the staff. Many of the 28 full-timers and 100 part-timers are in their early to mid-20s, and they are led by a 30-year-old. Tarango had worked on and off at rec since he was 19, and was working part time as a rec leader while pursuing his social work degree when Colley asked him to help run the new division. When the first supervisor moved on to the Department of Human Services last year, Colley tapped Tarango (then 29) to take over. The division serves more than 115,000 kids annually on a $4 million budget.  

The youthfulness of the staff creates a “Hey, let’s try this” attitude. “A lot of the older staff [in rec] see us as not wanting to wait,” Tarango says. “We want to challenge the more established part of the system.”  

“There are a lot of people who are complacent in this field,” Smith says. “We’re not afraid to take risks.”  

The first risk was handling curfew violators.  

Thrill the Cops  

In 1993 the city began strictly enforcing its curfew ordinance (10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for ages 15 and under, midnight to 5 a.m. for 16- and 17-year-olds). The police needed somewhere to hold the kids, and looked at renting facilities for up to $300,000 a year, Colley says. “I went ballistic. I called the police chief and said, how about zero?” Colley offered his rec centers for free, and to staff them.  

The police were thrilled. “We didn’t want to run the [curfew] centers. It was too manpower-intensive,” says former police chief Dennis Garrett. “It worked out to be a great partnership.”      

First, the city council had to be convinced. “Why exactly do you want the parks department handling this?” City Councilwoman Peggy Billsten recalls the council asking. “Why should the kids be there” at rec centers?  

This is where age and experience – namely, Colley’s – delivered what pure enthusiasm could not. The veteran rec administrator was well-respected in the city, and told the council his philosophy: Violating curfew is “a warning sign, not a lock-them-up sign,” Billsten recalls. “The question is, why are the kid out so late?”  

Now the police bring curfew violators to rec centers, where rec staff handle the paperwork and supervise the youths until family members come get them. Right from the start, Colley says, “The kids just spilled their guts about what was really happening” in their lives. Soon the rec department was referring kids to services dealing with domestic violence, literacy, and sex issues, and signing them up in department activities. First-time curfew offenders are sent not to court but to a diversion program run under contract by New Choices, Inc. The for-profit conducts classes for kids and parents on decision-making, conflict resolution and parenting skills.  

“It’s a good way to reach kids that might not reach out for service,” says Janet Garcia, executive director of Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development. “Once they’re picked up, they’d rather talk to us than deal with law enforcement.”  

Tumbleweed staff would spend the night with police or visiting the rec centers, providing shelter and other services to runaways or “kids who didn’t want to go home for some reason,” Garcia says. (She speaks in the past tense because the grants that funded Tumbleweed’s contract ran out. Rec center staff still call the Tumbleweed hotline to place kids in shelters.) 

Colley’s once odd-sounding concept works because the Rec Department is fulfilling a prescription for successful partnerships: Make life easier for the other partners. Police used to spend two hours processing youngsters brought in for curfew violations, the Rec Department says; now they spend 10 minutes. That has cut the city’s cost in police officers’ time from $30.90 per offender to $2.57, according to the Rec Department.  

Saving money for other agencies is a key component in the Rec Department’s formula for expanding its at-risk youth services. The department says its truancy prevention program (Operation AIM, for “Attendance is Mandatory”) saved city schools $266,000 last year, because of state funds that would have been lost if the students in AIM had not returned to school, which 94 percent of them do.  

Such results make it easier for Colley to pitch a new idea. “When somebody who has that kind of credibility makes a proposal, I don’t know of a council member around who would say no,” Billsten says. The Rec Department’s $73.5 million budget is the third largest in Phoenix, behind only the police and fire departments.  

Is there anything the At Risk Youth Division won’t try? How about sending gang kids up the river – for a week, in rafts, with disabled kids?  

Hot Topics  

Even Colley was shocked when staff suggested it. “I said you’re crazy to put gang kids with physically handicapped kids. I was worried about liability.”  

The agency had been taking disabled adults on rafting trips through its River Rampage program, run in partnership with the nonprofit River of Dreams. Fueled by a $200,000, three-year U.S. Department of Education grant in 1994 (under Projects Initiating Recreation Programs for Individuals with Disabilities), the agency expanded River Rampage to kids. Youths must be nominated by someone (about half are nominated by Rec Department staff) and complete 40 hours of volunteer work before going on the trips along Arizona and Utah rivers. “It’s been the most phenomenal program I’ve ever seen,” Colley says. 

Among the findings of a 1996 Arizona State University study: The at-risk kids “had a greater belief in their abilities to do well,” and learned “that they had personal strengths they did not know they had,” “new levels of patience, tolerance and compassion,” and “that one did not have to drink or do drugs to have fun.” The disabled kids “were more confident in their abilities to care for themselves,” “sought and received from their parents greater degrees of independence,” and “were more optimistic about their futures than before.” (There has not been a study of recidivism among the at-risk youth.)  

River Rampage illustrates two other keys to the Rec Department’s formula: finding new money and partnering with other agencies. The department launched its mobile street unit, using a van to bring rec programs to kids, with the Arizona Cactus Pine Girl Scouts. X-Tattoo, a program that removes tattoos from kids and adults who agree to life skills education, job counseling and community service, was launched with funding and services from the Valley of the Sun United Way, River of Dreams and the Arizona Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons. The At Risk Division gets about $1 million in grants each year through sources such as Community Development Block Grants (curfew diversion), Law Enforcement Block Grants (domestic violence and youth first offender programs) and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (a teen cable TV program and truancy prevention). Locally, the division’s regular partners include the city department of human services, the housing department, the schools, prosecutors and police.  

And each time someone plays a round of golf at a city course, they pay 25 cents to the city’s Golf Fund. The fund raises $150,000 a year for the At Risk Division’s Recreation Internship Program (providing, at any given time, 45 youths with jobs at rec facilities), youth golf clinics, and staff training on “hot topics” in the youth field, including pregnancy prevention, drug abuse, domestic violence and homelessness.  

The training is essential because the rec youth workers’ mission is to recognize kids who need help and know what to do. For instance, the Thunderbirds Teen Center has everything from tennis courts to a dance floor to a CD-recording studio, but the staff is not focused primarily on playtime.  

“We use dance and basketball as a hook to get kids in,” center director Scott Glenn says. “Afer that, who knows? Kids will start talking.” He and his staff work with troubled kids directly or hook them up with services. When the center learned that two girls in its dance troupe were pregnant, it brought in teen pregnancy counselors to help them, and Planned Parenthood counselors to talk to the rest of the troupe.  

“We didn’t want the girls who weren’t pregnant to think, ‘This is cool, we want to have a baby,’ because the pregnant girls were getting all the attention,” Glenn says.  

“Eight or nine years ago,” he says, “we had a staff that didn’t know how to deal with it.”  

Anger the Cops  

Can the rec department go too far?  

In 1996, a citywide review of all youth programs led to a surprising decision: The Phoenix Police Activities League (PAL) shouldn’t be run by the police. It could be run cheaper by the At Risk Youth Division.  

The police, who had started the local PAL in 1974, were furious.”We didn’t ask for it,” Colley stresses.  

“We were told they could get one-and-a-half or two recreation specialists for [the cost of] every police officer we had in the centers,” says former police chief Garrett. Garrett told city officials, “You’re losing sight of the fact that one of the goals for PAL is to build a better relationship between police officers and youth,” and removing cops from the centers would erase that objective.  

No matter. The six PAL centers were transferred to Rec – along with PAL’s eight 15-passenger vans. “We never in a million years could buy that many vans,” Tarango says. The vehicles “really empowered us,” enabling his division to greatly expand its mobile services to youth.  

It is the only known case where a PAL has been taken from the police, says Brad Hart, executive director of the Fla.-based National Police Athletic League. In Baltimore County, Md., the PAL-Recreation program is a partnership, funded, staffed and administered by the police and recreation departments. In Phoenix, kids can spend days in the PAL centers without seeing a uniformed cop.  

“We mix them in as much as we can,” Tarango says of the police. But it’s up to the officers in each community to decide how much they want to participate. Some officers who worked in the PALs before the transfer have continued a regular presence in the centers, while others have not. The falloff is unfortunate, says Jemeille Ackourey, vice president of operations for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix, which houses PAL centers in two of its facilities.  

“They were incredible with these children,” Ackourey says. Before the police opened the PAL centers in the clubs, she says, “these children did not see the police as being potential friends and saviors.” She saw PAL as a mentoring program that significantly changed kids’ perceptions of and relationships with police.  

While rec “does much better recreation programs” than the police did, Ackourey says, “We don’t see parks and recreation replacing the police. There’s no way they can do that.” The police still participate periodically, she said, “but it’s different than having them dedicated” to the centers. “They are not developing the relationships with these kids.”  

“Unfortunately, in the game of youth work, success is measured by the number of children you reach, and the expense. Cops are expensive.”  

The cost of running PAL has dropped from $380,000 a year to $126,000 under the Rec Department, Tarango says, while participation has increased by 200 percent. 

No Limits 

For Tarango and his staff, nothing seems to be automatically off limits. Their mission: “the positive self-development of youth by any means necessary,” says Dee Dee Woods, the South Phoenix Youth Center director. That’s why the division is launching a study of bullying in city schools. 

“We want to find out how many kids are missing school because some kid is picking on them,” says Smith, the former Los Angeles rec worker. She envisions working with the division’s education coordinator to develop in-service training for teachers.  

The Rec Department staff see themselves in a unique position as youth advocates. At Thunderbirds Teen Center, Director Scott Glenn watches 20 teen girls warm up in a large room for their after-school dance class. “If they have a problem, they’re not going to call their school counselor,” Glenn says. He points to the 20-something dance instructor and says, “They’ll talk to her.”  

Or Tarango, at 11 p.m.. That’s when his pager beeped at home one night. It was a youth from one of the division’s school-based teen support groups, and he had a problem: Two female friends had just come to his house in panic, having fled their violent father.  

Tarango got on the phone with division and school officials to coordinate a response for the next morning. The girls got counseling, and the father got arrested.  

For those youths, the Rec Department wasn’t about bats and balls. The Rec Department was their crisis hotline.


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