Coming from the mountains of Tennessee, Jared Pyle, 17, said he was surprised to find that teenagers in Los Angeles suffer from some of the same problems--drugs, teen pregnancy and boredom--as youths back home.
"It surprised me because I thought people from Los Angeles would have plenty to do," he said.
Rommel Hilario, counseling program director for New Directions for Youth, a Van Nuys community service group, said he was impressed by an agency in a small Kentucky town that organized its youth members and marched on their City Council, asking for support.
"It showed me the power of a kid's voice," Hilario said.
Pyle and Hilario were among youth workers from across the country who came together Sunday in Burbank to address the quality of after-school programs.
According to a preliminary survey taken during the weekend conference, the success of after-school programs depends on community commitment, the availability of activities in safe meeting places and adequate funding.
The conference, sponsored by Save the Children, brought together 55 young community service leaders and their adult supervisors for a workshop on their experiences with after-school programs.
The focus of the three-day event was to give the young peer counselors a chance to voice their opinions and learn new ideas and skills, which they can implement in their youth programs, said Diana Aldridge, public affairs director for Save the Children, a Connecticut-based national and international youth assistance organization.
The final report on the conference will be sent to the 45 community-based partnerships that are part of Save the Children's new effort to improve after-school programs and other related organizations, said Aldridge.
Conference participants were enthusiastic about swapping ideas.
"It's been a great opportunity to meet new people," Hilario said. "For the kids, it's important for them to know that there are others like them, not only in Los Angeles, but in the entire country."
Julian Apodaca, 16, of Phoenix, said he liked seeing what other groups did to improve their programs. So impressed by the creation of a community garden and surreal floral mural at Pacoima Middle School, Apodaca said he will recommend that his group undertake a similar project.
"I didn't know a mural could be so effective in allowing kids to express themselves," Apodaca said.
Sharing experiences also showed the delegates that they face common problems, Aldridge said.
Some conference participants said their different backgrounds were a challenge during the problem-solving exercises and in decision making.
"We're not used to these people. We just met them on Thursday," said Michelle Miller, 15, of New York, "and already, we're supposed to be family."
Still, Miller said, dealing with their differences helped the delegates learn about other people and how to relate to them.
Catherine Milton, vice president of Save the Children's U.S. programs, said that based on the exchange of ideas and initial feedback from participants, the three-day conference was a success.
"I've seen friendships grow between people who are so different," Milton said. "It's been a fantastic experience for everyone."