Youths Looking for Summer Activities Face a Great Divide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years there has been a glaring gap between youth recreational opportunities in the white-collar cities of eastern Ventura County and the working-class west.

And there are few signs that the situation is changing.

The gap reveals itself most clearly when school is out for the summer, and with teenagers who are too old to be packed off to day camp but young enough to benefit from supervision.

"There is a disparity that remains to this day, and it has not gotten better," said Oscar Gonzalez, a Ventura attorney and community leader who grew up in the barrios of Fillmore and Santa Paula.

The battle against teenage boredom--often linked to drug use and juvenile crime--is one that recreation officials have been fighting for decades.

No city has figured out how to engage all teens, but the opportunities for youths to spend idle time constructively are much more abundant in the east county cities than those in the west.

In Oxnard, for example, the city spends about $25 per resident on recreation, while in Fillmore the figure is less than $12. The per-resident spending in Thousand Oaks, meanwhile, is about $62.

Though spending comparisons can be difficult because of differences in the way cities and special districts administer their budgets, the reality of what more money can buy is clear.

East county libraries are bigger, better and open longer hours. Parks are bright and well manicured, with fountains and streams. Lights in the sprawling ball fields actually work.

"It's obvious we need many more activities for teenagers and young adults all over the western part of Ventura County," said John Flynn, who represents Oxnard on the county Board of Supervisors. "It comes down to affluence."

Scott Mitnick, assistant city manager in Thousand Oaks, said he believes all cities in Ventura County provide basic recreational services--from community centers to sports leagues. But affluence does offer extras, he said, including skateboard parks, plush teen centers and vast, well-maintained athletic fields.

"It's very clear that an affluent community like Thousand Oaks is able to provide facilities, services and programs at a higher level," Mitnick said. "This community does put a high priority on activities for youth and is willing to put its money where its mouth is."

So are many of the parents, who have higher incomes on average than their counterparts in the west county.

Thirteen-year-old Lauren Shanklin of Thousand Oaks, for example, said her parents pay for any activity she's interested in. Her summer will be spent at a soccer camp hosted by Pepperdine University, taking classes at the teen center or hiking on some of the city's nearby wilderness trails.

"There's lots to do," she said. "Soccer keeps me very busy."

Jiles Sanabria, 14, of Ventura said that if city recreation programs and classes were free, he'd be much more likely to participate.

"You can't be hitting your parents up for money all summer," he said. "That just won't work."

Even if west county teenagers have the money, the facilities aren't always there.

Heidi Hanson of Ventura is trying to keep busy, which is why the 14-year-old signed up to play on a field hockey team this summer. But she has to travel to the east county just to practice on turf fields, which are too expensive for her own city to maintain.

The same is true for Gonzalez and his two boys in Santa Paula. As a working professional, he can afford to sign them up for activities, but they're not offered in his community. What's worse, he said, no one seems to be orchestrating an effort to change things.

"They don't have the day camps, the skateboard parks, the organized baseball leagues, the public swimming pools or any central place to go," he said. "It pains me when I go by Las Piedras Park in Santa Paula, and the only thing going on is the police substation."

Meanwhile in Moorpark, teenage rock musicians compete in city-sponsored battle-of-the-band contests and jam sessions.

Each month, there are skateboarding contests and Friday night dances, complete with food and deejays, which draw hundreds of teenagers. And the city recently agreed to fund a bus that will take teenagers to Zuma Beach twice a week for only $1 each way.

At the Conejo Recreation and Park District's teen center in Thousand Oaks, there's a spacious gym for basketball and dances. There's an arcade with video games, and pool tables and activity rooms where a long list of fee-based classes for teens are offered each day. At Borchard Community Center, a large new skateboard park is swarming with teenage boys.

"There's never a shortage of stuff to do," said 17-year-old Joe Domingo while shooting hoops in the teen center gym. Growing up in Thousand Oaks, he's spent countless hours there when he could have been at home, bored. "I think we're really lucky to have this place."

This summer in Simi Valley, the Boys & Girls Club is hosting Friday night dances for middle-school-age teens, giving them entertainment they want, such as rave-style music. A dance last week drew more than 400 kids.

"For a lot of teens, summer is boring, and we'd rather them be here on a Friday night as opposed to walking around town with nothing to do," said program director Earl Okamoto.

In cities like Fillmore and Santa Paula, recreation budgets are meager and programming for teens is minimal.

Part of the reason for the disparity, officials say, is size. With a smaller tax base and a largely low-income demographic, both cities have long suffered from a lack of resources. In Fillmore, for instance, officials are just now building the city's second public park and beginning to provide recreational opportunities for younger kids.

Although both cities want to build skateboard parks, which they hope will meet some of the teenage recreation demand, they are struggling to find locations and raise the funds.

"We do lack things for teenagers, and one of my goals is to get something going," said Brian Yanez, Santa Paula's recreation coordinator. He plans to bring a proposal soon to the City Council to convert a storage room into a teen center.

"At least it would give them a place to come and do their homework--or just hang out," he said.

Recreation options for teens in Oxnard--which, as the largest city in the county, is home to the most kids--are similarly bleak compared with the cities to the east.

Nonprofit Groups Help Close Gap

But at least in Oxnard things are not as bad as they once were. In the last five years, city recreation officials and nonprofit groups have pushed to close the gap.

A Boys & Girls club in Port Hueneme, which also serves kids in south Oxnard, was in danger of being shuttered. But it now thrives, with offerings that include a popular Friday night basketball session.

It's not easy to keep the club open until 11 p.m., said director Jason Tiscareno, but he said he knows those 40 to 50 kids could easily be getting into trouble if they weren't playing basketball at the center.

"A lot of the barrier is them--their own attitudes," he said. "But we have to make it more interesting for them, and we're starting to do that."

Diane LaDouceur, human services coordinator for the city, said that when she arrived in Oxnard four years ago, the recreation department offered five classes. Now there are 45, ranging from mosaic art to hip-hop dancing, she said.

Also in the last five years, the Police Activities League--a partnership between the Oxnard recreation and police departments--has taken over the old Oxnard High School gym.

A PAL center for teenagers is open five days a week until 8 p.m. and sponsors dances for high school and middle school kids. On a recent Saturday, about 650 teens showed up for one, said Rob Jenkins, city recreation supervisor.

"I think we do a good job for teenagers, but there's always room for improvement," he said.

In north Oxnard, a 5,000-square-foot teen center is being built within a new Boys & Girls Club and will open this fall. The addition is a huge step forward for the city's teenagers, many of whom are in desperate need of a safe place to go, said Jaime Zendejas, director of operations for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme.

"It's nationally recognized that we as an organization have a problem retaining teens," Zendejas said. "This new facility will be unbelievable, and it will make a big difference."

Efren Gorre, who runs Oxnard City Corps, a teenage community service program that began six years ago after a similar program lost its federal funding, said there has been a tremendous change in youth activities in the last five years.

"We've tried to design systems that run on the energy of kids instead of paying adult staff to do things they think kids would want," he said.

Once an area manages to keep its teens busy, there are noticeable benefits, local law enforcement officials said.

Burglaries, many of which are committed by juveniles, increase significantly during the summer when kids are out of school, said David Keith, public information officer for the Oxnard Police Department.

"It is a big problem," he said. "The more we can keep them busy, the better off we are."

Busy Kids Stay Out of Trouble

The fact that such a summer crime spike doesn't occur in Thousand Oaks says a lot about what that community provides, said Cmdr. Keith Parks, who heads the city's sheriff's substation.

"I think parents in this community do an incredible job of keeping kids busy and occupied, which is why there is less opportunity for them to get in trouble," Parks said.

All over Ventura County older kids say there was definitely much more to do when they were younger.

That's partly because recreation leaders historically have written off the fickle, tough-to-please teenage crowd, especially those over 16.

"My theory is once a teen has mobility, you lose them," said Dennis Gass, a recreation supervisor for the Conejo park district.

Not that Gass wants to write off any age group. The key to involving teens of any age is getting them together and soliciting their input, Gass said. Then the city must dedicate the resources.

That strategy seems to have worked in Moorpark, where teens' participation at the Arroyo Vista Community Center has skyrocketed in recent months. The city has followed the lead of neighbors such as Thousand Oaks and Agoura Hills, which for years have reached out to teenagers.

"Other cities haven't been successful because teens really are a unique group and they're hard to reach," said Rachele Loosbrock, whom the city hired last fall to beef up teen-focused programming. Moorpark's "After Dark" Friday night dances are now drawing more than 500 kids.

"No specific program or activity is going to reach everybody," she said. "You really need to listen to them."

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