Lounging on a lush, rolling lawn at a Conejo Valley music camp, 13-year-old Joel Mankey describes Ventura County as a veritable paradise of leisure, with sports, culture and fun at every turn.
"I've lived here all my life, and there has never been a shortage of things to do," said the Thousand Oaks youth, taking a break from flute practice. "Some people just don't want to do them."
But 14-year-old Rodrigo Flores tells a different story as he slouches on a concrete bench outside the Centerpoint Mall in south Oxnard, waiting for a bus ride home and wondering what, if anything, he can do for kicks.
"I think Ventura County sucks," Rodrigo said. "There is hardly anything for teen-agers to do."
Taken as a whole, recreation in Ventura County is a remarkably diverse tapestry of Little League teams and art clubs, Boy Scout packs and dance troupes.
The variety is no accident, but the result of a concerted effort by many Ventura County parents to become active in sports and arts programs and ensure that their children have a rewarding childhood.
But recreation '90s style carries a big, growing price tag. Due to shrinking tax dollars and donations, children now have to pay to play--even for the most basic private and city-sponsored sports and leisure activities.
Increasingly, only the haves can afford to have fun.
According to The Times Poll, 84% of the county's parents rated local parks and recreation facilities as good or excellent--95% in the affluent east county, where government recreation programs are ranked among California's best.
"There's a lot of recreation in Simi Valley," said Denise Esswein, who has already enrolled her daughters Monica, 4, and Shannon, 3, in ballet and tap dance classes through the Rancho Simi Parks and Recreation District.
"They're reasonably priced, and they always have special activities during the holidays," she said. "I'm completely happy with what there is to do here."
The poll, however, found that only 18% of parents earning less than $20,000 a year, and 41% of those earning between $20,000 and $40,000, said they could afford all the leisure activities in which their children want to participate.
Thirty-seven percent of Ventura County families make less than $40,000 a year, according to U. S. census figures.
"My three sons like sports, but a working family cannot afford all this equipment and fees," said Juan Parra of Oxnard, a 42-year-old forklift driver who said he could not pay for any of the activities his children have requested.
Furthermore, poor and affluent teen-agers find agreement in one overriding complaint: There is nowhere they can go at night to hang out and socialize.
"As a teen-ager in Simi Valley, the only place to hang out at night is Denny's," 17-year-old Lauren McAuliffe said. "There's more coffee shops popping up, and some of them have poetry readings, but there's not much to do at all."
Consequently, some teen-agers and parents say, adolescents who have outgrown spending Friday nights at home have few alternatives to turn to except drugs, booze and mischief to escape the small-town blues.
"The teen years are when people begin to socialize, and it's frightening to think that our kids are learning to socialize getting drunk in the Ventura River bottom," said Phil Taggart of Ventura, who ran the now-defunct Insomniac Cafe after his work days at Patagonia to give his kids somewhere safe to go.
Taggart said the Insomniac closed because teen-agers hung around the Ventura coffeehouse without buying anything--a common gripe among entrepreneurs who try to cater to young people.
Since then, numerous cafes have sprung up in downtown Ventura, including the pastel-colored Two West, which keeps its doors open well past midnight on weekends--attracting rambling teens in droves.
The Ventura Boys & Girls Club keeps its doors open until 9 p.m. on weekends, hoping to give young people a safe place to gather. And in Thousand Oaks, the plush Teen Center stays open until 10 p.m.
Yet many teen-agers still complain they have nothing to do.
The problem, experts say, is that the very qualities that parents look for in a place to raise children--quiet and security within carefully tended enclaves--drive adolescents up the wall.
Take, for instance, Mike, Pat and Cesar, three 15-year-old punk rock fans from east Ventura.
The bright, gangly teens--the very picture of nonconformity--spend their days belting out unruly political songs in Pat's garage, smoking cigarettes and talking about how they would rather be anywhere but in staid old Ventura.
"Sometimes you think it's cool to live in Ventura 'cause you think it's quiet, but other times you feel so bored you wish you were somewhere else," said Cesar, his dyed black hair spiked in clumps.
"Sometimes I wish I was somewhere more exciting, instead of watching old people drive by," Pat said.
Uptight neighbors, Pat said, complained to police about an "awful noise" emanating from his garage, so the future of their jam sessions is in jeopardy.
Now their alternatives, they say, are going to Circle K for an ice drink, browsing at Record Outlet or loitering in downtown Ventura's coffeehouses--if they can get a ride.
Other teen-agers complain that nighttime is not the right time to be a young person in the sleepy bedroom communities of the east county.
"There's a lot of things to do in the arts," said 16-year-old Jim Roberts of Thousand Oaks. "But in terms of things to do on Saturday night, there's very little."
Jim said he and his friends often have to travel into the San Fernando Valley or Hollywood to find entertainment. He said they used to go to a lot of local house parties but they were usually boring booze fests. Besides, he said, they nearly always were broken up early when neighbors called police.
"Neighbors in T. O. don't stand for that," he said. "They don't stand for much."
They may not be tolerant of a youthful ruckus, but neighbors throughout Ventura County--especially in wealthier communities such as Camarillo and Thousand Oaks--have teamed together to support youth recreation programs.
For instance, Camarillo residents and local business owners have rallied in support of the Camarillo Boys & Girls Club, whose food- and wine-tasting fund-raisers have become one of the city's top social events. The club, which has more than 2,000 members, has an annual budget of $500,000, mostly from private donations.
"Instead of saying that government is going to take care of it, we have a group of people here--residents, small-business owners--who want to create a good community for young people," said Jay Grigsby, the club's executive director.
Not all communities, however, can bankroll recreation facilities. A few miles from Camarillo in working-class Port Hueneme, the Port Hueneme Boys & Girls Club endures a much more difficult existence.
In one year, membership skyrocketed from 300 to 3,000, mainly because former San Diego Chargers great Chuck Muncie became executive director, and the Oxnard Boys & Girls Club shuttered its south Oxnard branch.
"We're keeping a lot of Port Hueneme kids off the streets right now, and we're also having to take in these kids from Oxnard," program coordinator Jaime Zendejas said. "We don't mind at all, but we sure would like some [financial] support."
Although the club's membership has increased tenfold, its budget has failed to keep up and its equipment and facilities are badly outdated.
Zendejas and other club employees scour swap meets and garage sales for board games to keep children busy--paying out of their own pockets.
"We do our best--Chuck does golf tournaments, we have spaghetti dinners," Zendejas said. "But we don't have enough money."
Also, not all neighbors and businesses in Ventura County want recreation activities in their vicinity--sometimes arguing that skateboarders scare customers, Little League generates traffic and basketball hoops would very likely bring undesirables into their communities.
In Oxnard, some residents near three recently built parks asked city officials not to include restrooms, barbecue grills and sport facilities, fearing their neighborhoods would be swamped with junkies and hoodlums.
And in Camarillo, park district officials had to postpone long-awaited plans for an in-line skating rink after members of a nearby church complained it would disrupt religious services.
Government recreation programs have traditionally filled the void for young people whose parents could not afford private sports leagues and leisure activities.
But throughout California, less-affluent cities--the places where young people need government-subsidized recreation the most--have drastically reduced recreation programs.
Following the Proposition 13 property tax revolt of 1978, California political leaders began to cut away at leisure activities. Free recreation was replaced by a "pay to play" philosophy of break-even programs.
California cities were again hit hard after 1992, when the state diverted property taxes from local recreation agencies to fund education.
Consequently, Ventura County recreation agencies raised fees to keep programs afloat. Some abandoned activities altogether.
"Do you want a baseball league or do you want your trash collected?" asked Lisa Donely, recreation manager for Port Hueneme, which canceled all programs at its athletic center two years ago. "The recreation programs are always the first to go."
Public libraries have long been a refuge for curious young people unable to pay bookstore prices, but eager to learn. But budget cuts and a reluctance by county taxpayers to support special library taxes have forced the county library system to drastically scale back hours at its 16 branches.
In four years, the budget of the Ventura County Library Services Agency has shrunk from $10 million to $5.8 million, or $13.95 per person for the 420,000 people it serves. By contrast, the Thousand Oaks Library, funded in part through a special parcel tax, will spend $40.17 per capita this year. The statewide per-capita average for public libraries in 1993-94 was $16.53.
Dixie Adeniran, director of the Ventura County Library Services Agency, said that unless several ballot measures to support libraries are approved by voters, some branches--including El Rio, Ventura Avenue, Oak Park, Saticoy, Oak View, Piru and Meiners Oaks--will have to close by the end of March.
Oxnard spent $12 million in 1992 to build a state-of-the-art public library, but the City Council slashed the library budget shortly afterward and the facility has been hobbled by reduced hours and services since.
Of the county's large cities, Oxnard's youth programs have been hit the hardest.
The city's parks and recreation budgets were decimated in the 1990s, as Oxnard closed all park restrooms, scaled back its citywide swim program and discontinued all youth programs out of its South Oxnard Center.
Oxnard is slowly rebuilding its recreation department, implementing a citywide network of after-school programs, but money is scarce.
"Young people do not come to the City Council and scream and yell," said Councilman Bedford Pinkard, a former Oxnard recreation superintendent who ran for office to rebuild youth programs. "Young people do not vote."
Financially healthy agencies such as the Conejo Recreation and Park District also have felt the budget pinch, but have been able to maintain services by raising fees. For instance, a nine-lesson summer aquatics class for children cost $25 in 1992. A year later, the same class cost $32. The price has stayed level since.
The increases have allowed the Conejo district--voted the top parks and recreation district in California last year--to continue providing an exhaustive list of sports, arts and entertainment programs.
Because they receive a share of property taxes directly from the state, parks and recreation districts in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Camarillo do not have to compete against other public services every year at budget time, as city-run recreation programs do.
Consequently, they usually have more money to spend than their city-run counterparts.
For example, the Rancho Simi Recreation and Parks District has an operating budget of $6.5 million, or about $56 for each resident, and the Conejo district has an operating budget of $7.2 million, or about $60 per capita.
By contrast, Oxnard, which spends about half of its operating budget on police and fire services, has a combined parks and recreation budget of about $4 million, or $25 for each resident.
Not all cities spend less on recreation than the park districts, however. Ojai's combined recreation and parks budget is about $780,000, or about $95 for each of the tiny city's 8,150 residents.
Most sports leagues and recreation agencies offer fee waivers and scholarships for those who cannot pay. Even so, a growing number of children are being left out, said Jesse Washington, recreation administrator for the Conejo district.
Many parents stretch their finances to move to Ventura County, he said, and they are too embarrassed to seek financial aid for recreation.
For those who can pay, Ventura County offers seemingly endless recreation options.
Pamela and Michael Adelson moved to Thousand Oaks from the San Fernando Valley 15 years ago, planning to have children and looking for a less-congested, more family oriented community.
With beaches and hiking trails nearby, 11-year-old Seth in roller hockey league and 13-year-old Erika involved in flute playing, they could not be happier with their choice.
"The kids have plenty of opportunity to learn to draw, play music, other cultural things," said Michael Adelson, a chiropractor who teaches juggling in his spare time. "That's not available everywhere."
Seth is also into the saxophone and clarinet, and he says that between bike rides, music and hockey, he and his friends always have something fun to do.
But Erika, just entering Thousand Oaks High School, said Thousand Oaks can be boring--especially when you are too young to drive.
"You can only go to the mall so many times," she said.
And if Thousand Oaks is boring, consider the plight of some of the kids in Fillmore in the aftermath of the 1994 earthquake, which virtually destroyed the tiny city's downtown area.
On a curving street in Fillmore across from a sheriff's substation, in a neighborhood formerly known as the town's gang Mecca, a dozen teen-agers now hang out every day at the homes of 14-year-old Joe (Kuks) Rodriguez and Antonio Recendez.
"The kick-back house," as the duplex is known, has become a place where the boys--ages 10 to 14--pass the time by playing Super Nintendo, arguing about the talents of Dodgers' pitcher Hideo Nomo, watching trashy television talk shows and gossiping about local girls.
They have been meeting at the house virtually every day for two years.
The Fillmore Theater, closed due to damage after the Northridge quake, was their second hangout--the place where they would spend hours attending matinees and night shows, watching the same movies over and over.
Now that the town's only theater is closed, the boys say there is nothing to do but pull up the garage doors, stare outside and chat.
"It's almost like suicide," 14-year-old Rick Hurtado said. "With a theater you could go see 'Congo,' 'Braveheart,' 'Waterworld.' We can't look forward to that anymore."
But they say they have learned a valuable small-town lesson from growing up in slow-paced Fillmore: Good friendship is worth a lot.
"We sit around and talk," Antonio said, lying in the shade of his garage with the other boys. "At least we've got a lot to talk about."
* Next Sunday: The battle to instill moral values in the county's children.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
BY THE NUMBERS
Statistics that reflect on children in Ventura County:
Where The Kids Are
Percentage of population under 18
Santa Paula: 29.9%
Simi Valley: 27.5%
Port Hueneme: 27.5%
Thousand Oaks: 24.7%
Amount Spent Per Person by Major Park Systems
Conejo Recreation and Park District: $60
Rancho Simi Parks and Recreation: $56
Regional Parks: 15
State and City Beaches: 15
Children Participating in Youth Soccer: 18,000
Boys and Girls Involved in Scouting: 13,100
Amount Spent Per Person by Library Systems
* Thousand Oaks: $40
* Santa Paula: $20
* Oxnard: $15
* Ventura County: $14
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Voices: Is there enough to do in Ventura County to keep young people entertained during their free time?
'I think that the people that live here enjoy a slice of paradise. We live so close to the beaches and ocean, and there's opportunities to go hiking and surfing as well as taking advantage of recreation programs where they can become introduced to music and culture. I think there's a lot to do. It's a good area [in which] to be raised.'
Thousand Oaks parent
'I have lived in the Conejo Valley for the last four years. In all this time, there is rarely a weekend or summer evening that goes by without at least once chance for something to do. I believe that if today's teen-agers 'have nothing to do,' it's because they're simply not looking very hard. Especially here in Ventura County, where there is such opportunity.'
Age 17, of Westlake
'No. Not at the present time. However, the needs of young people go far beyond simple entertainment and there are numerous resources that can be identified and utilized to address those needs. By involving all of the community in youth-oriented activities, it will be possible to create an environment in which our young people can develop into positive, active and productive members of the community.'
Oxnard Recreation Superintendent
'No way. Every time they start clubs for teens they close down within a few months. The adults have got this stereotype of what kids should be doing, and it's not realistic. We don't have a variety of stuff to do.'
Age 17, of Ojai