Publication Date: Wednesday Aug 24, 1994

East Palo Alto program finds success

Bell Street Youth Center attracts 80 kids a day

While Palo Alto experiments with different ways to keep its youth busy and entertained, East Palo Alto already has a successful and popular program up and running.

Located just off the corner of University Avenue and Bell Street, the Bell Street Park Youth Center opened last year as a way to provide the youth of East Palo Alto an alternative environment to the streets.

"A lot of kids come here to socialize," said Angela Adams, a recreational leader at the center, because the center gives "kids... some place to go, instead of hanging in the streets."

"I know what it is like to be a teen-ager and not have much to do," she said.

Open Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., the center hosts nearly 80 kids a day and operates nearly at capacity. The youths have an opportunity to play basketball, shoot pool, play ping pong, or just listen to music and hang out with their friends.

Some play basketball at the center because the time involved in traveling to and from high schools outside of the city makes it hard to participate in their school's sports program. As an alternative, they join one of the center's teams.

Adams, who coaches girls basketball, said the kids are really responding to the opportunity to use the center. "They are willing to play (here) every day," she said.

On a recent hot day, they proved Adams right, playing basketball with full gusto, heat or no heat. And while the boys on the court were taking jump shots and running full court to make slam dunk attempts, other kids were gathered outside listening to rap music.

Taking it all in was Raymond Strain, a pre-law student who is volunteering at the center during his summer break. "(If) they did not like it, they would not come here," said Strain. "It is a very good program."

The center was born out of East Palo Alto's efforts to reshape itself from its recent troubled past.

"People realized it was OK to make the place safe," said Meda Okela, director of community services for the city. "But now that you have made the place safe you need to offer things, you need to offer activities for young people to do."

The problem was that a few years back the city's entire recreational program had been cut due to budget constraints. Okela and the city kept working on the problem, and in 1993, through a combination of income sources--contributions from foundations, neighboring cities, businesses, and the city general fund--they came up with the money to open the center.

Now the goal is to keep it open. "Our intention from now on is that (the center) is going to remain open essentially forever," said Okela. One of his jobs is to find the money needed to keep it open. And because of the tenuous situation with EPA's tax base, Okela looks at foundations and corporations to become partners in the youth program.

As an example, the YMCA ran a summer camp for kids during the day at the center.

Adams said she hopes the city can keep it going. "This is a positive place," she said.