Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bob Weir to Help Rex grantee Project Avary Celebrate its 10th Anniversary

If you are going to be in San Francisco on Wednesday, March 4th, please join Project Avary at the Great American Music Hall for an intimate evening that promises to be a literary and musical treat. Project Avary offers summer and family camps, field trips, and leadership programs for children with incarcerated parents. Founded by former Grateful Dead manager Danny Rifkin and supported from the beginning by the Rex Foundation, Avary is happy and proud to have seen so many of our children grow and thrive.

The festivities will include a conversation between KQED’s Michael Krasny and author Isabel Allende as well as a musical performance by Moonalice with special guests Bob Weir and Mark Karan. Your ticket also gets you dinner, entry to a silent auction, (which will include special signed collector’s items), and a chance to meet some of our children. Come and hear about their successes in college, the arts, the workplace, and the community! Just complete the online request for an invitation. Tickets are $100, with all net proceeds benefiting Project Avary's programs. Sponsorship opportunities are available.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

How Important Is the Net?

Interviewed in the current Rex newsletter, AT&T executive Ken McNeely says he believes that basic broadband service should be available to all, and considered an essential component of Universal Service in the U.S.

Ken suggests that there must be a "will to change" among the public at large in recognizing the importance of broadband service to society and ensuring a level playing field. The question, he says: Is subsidizing broadband on the same level as subsidizing food and public education? Should every student have a computer and Internet access?

Are the benefits of broadband connectivity such that it should be a guaranteed universal service, regardless of location and cost issues? And if so, what's the best way to make it happen? Please give us your thoughts.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Change of Priorities

Interviewed in the current Rex newsletter, Annette Gellert of Women's Environmental Leadership Network proposes that the will to change, the momentum needed to solve the world's most intransigent problems, proceeds from a set of priorities very different from those that currently prevail.

"We need to consider our children’s health and quality of life first, with our personal interest and financial rewards second, which is the reverse of the current situation," she says. "We must consider how to take care of each other and benefit future generations, not just focus on quarterly profits."

If you look at the world with those priorities, how do your choices change? What issues become most urgent? Share your thoughts here.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

What Should Public Education Be?

Many schools across the U.S., particularly public ones, face budget constraints and challenges to beef up standardized test scores. As a result, they’ve severely cut, if not eliminated, music and arts education.

In the course of its 24-year history, the Rex Foundation, like many other philanthropic organizations, has helped to fund grassroots groups that find innovative ways to foster creativity in young people and serve as models for similar efforts elsewhere.

But to consider where the arts fit into public education, we first have to consider the nature of public education itself.

Over the centuries in which it's been a key component of American society, it's been perceived as (among other things) preparing the younger generation for the responsibilities of democracy, giving them the necessary job skills to support themselves and contribute to the economy, providing them with critical thinking skills, or helping them find their own most fulfilling path in life.

A key issue, of course, is that public education is funded by the taxpayers, who not unnaturally see themselves as stakeholders, and hence is greatly subject to the vicissitudes of political wind-shifting.

As you see it — as a citizen, a taxpayer, possibly a parent and certainly a former kid — what do you think the true job of public education is? Where is the current version measuring up? Where is it falling short?

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Watch Our Video!

Recently Rex joined forces with some of its grantees to actually engage youth in raising awareness of human rights issues, creating a stage production called "The World As It Could Be: A Declaration of Human Rights" — and producing a DVD of the event.

The main goal of this dramatization was to raise awareness about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also exemplified the importance of using the creative arts to educate people about social, economic and political issues; at the same time, it demonstrated the value of the programs that use the arts to nurture the development of the participating young people.

By creating a permanent document of this often soul-stirring performance (at Jerry Garcia's alma mater, Balboa High School in San Francisco), we hope to make it available far beyond the original audience. In particular, teachers may find it a valuable resource in presenting issues related to human rights.

Check it out, and let us know what you think!

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Project Avary: A Better Way

Project Avary: A Better Way

When a parent goes to prison, statistics show their kids have drastically increased odds of heading down the same path. Project Avary takes an intensive approach to breaking that cycle.

 By Mary Eisenhart

Back in the mid-’90s, Danny Rifkin, a longtime Grateful Dead family member and then the Rex Foundation’s executive director, was looking for a new challenge. “It was about a year after Jerry died,” he recalls, “and I was asking friends of mine whom I held in high regard for ideas for what I might next do in life.”

One of the friends he talked with was Earl Smith, who served as a chaplain at San Quentin prison. Smith told him that while there were some community-based organizations that helped former prisoners re-enter the community, and a few agencies to help families while loved ones were incarcerated, there were next to no resources specifically devoted to helping the children of incarcerated parents cope with the myriad issues that come with having a parent in prison.

The results, Smith said, were there for all to see, with sons following fathers following grandfathers into the prison system. But he had an idea of what might break the cycle — and who might want to do it.

Danny Rifkin, Project Avary founder

Rifkin recalls, “When Earl brought up the fact that there were no programs for children with incarcerated parents and that what would be good would be a summer camp and follow-up program, a light bulb went off in my mind. I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and with my previous experiences at Slide Ranch and Camp Winnarainbow, I had the experience and potential staff resources necessary to get the project going.

I was, at the time, the administrator of the Rex Foundation, so I wrote a letter to the board asking them if I could use Rex as an umbrella organization until we could establish our own non-profit status and whether Rex would supply a $10,000 start-up grant. The response to both requests was positive. In addition, Caryl, Mickey Hart’s wife, happened to see my letter and offered an additional grant of $10,000 from her family’s foundation, the Ohrbach Foundation. This was very validating for me, and I knew I was onto the next right thing.”

Launched in 1999, Project Avary (Alternative Ventures for At Risk Youth) began with Rifkin and a group of friends taking 32 kids to a week of camp in the Sierras. By the next year it had grown to three weeks, with a fourth added in 2004. But Avary’s work extended beyond just taking at-risk kids to camp — monthly Avary Adventure Days take kids on field trips throughout the Bay Area, there’s a Family Camp once a year, and twice-yearly celebrations gather the whole Avary community. There are leadership retreats and a mentor program to help older youth in the program work with the younger kids.

Underlying all of Avary’s work is offering “The Avary Way” as an alternative family structure and way of life to kids whose regular lives often lack both stability and positive influence. “The Avary Way” emphasizes five areas (see sidebar): Social skills in daily life, creative arts, environmental education, physical activity and nutrition, and life skills.  Along the way there are rituals, gatherings and celebrations to honor the kids and their progress.

Avary is a small, resource-intensive (for example, at camp there’s one counselor for every two kids) effort serving the San Francisco Bay Area — but it offers a clear demonstration that what it’s doing works. Remarkably, of approximately 300 kids who have attended Avary camp since 1999, 159 remain involved today.

Since that first startup grant in 1999, Rex has continued to support Avary with subsequent grants in 2002, 2004 and 2006, as Avary itself has continued to evolve. Says Herb Castillo, who became Avary’s executive director last year when Rifkin retired, “In 2004 there was a surge in teen involvement. Rex funding over the following two years was instrumental in helping Avary expand the Teen Leadership program’s capacity to accommodate the large number of children choosing to commit their teen years to Avary. Today, nearly 60 of the over 150 children and youth participating in Avary are teenagers.”

We recently had a chance to speak with Castillo about Avary’s work, the difficulties, and the rewards.

Herb Castillo, Project Avary Executive Director

Rex Foundation: What are the particular challenges kids with incarcerated parents face? Who are these kids — where do they live, what are their families like?

Herb Castillo, Project Avary: The families we serve are typically “multi-problem families” who face a range of interrelated challenges, including poverty, lack of a stable home environment, lack of educational resources, and physical and mental health issues.

Research tells us that children of incarcerated parents experience trauma affecting their emotional and even physical development. Their ability to trust is undermined. Other problems include anxiety, asocial behavior, and inability to focus or concentrate.

Also, the constant contact children have, through their parent or parents, with the criminal justice system can socialize a child, such that their life chances of incarceration can be as much as five times more than other children’s.

There are an estimated 170,000 to 200,000 children of incarcerated parents living in the Bay Area. Obviously we are only serving a fraction, but across a wide geographic area. The kids Avary serves live in eight Bay Area counties and in 39 cities.

Nearly 60% of Avary kids live with the remaining parent and another 20% with a relative, usually a grandmom. Most of our kids are low-income, live in tough neighborhoods where even a walk to the school is filled with risk, and usually suffer from inadequate health care and under-resourced schools. 

Rex: What’s the process for deciding which kids get to enter the program?

Project Avary: Summer camp is the primary entry point for a new child to join Avary. The child must be between 8.5 and 11 and usually comes to our attention through a teacher or social worker. Thereafter we strive to work with a child into young adulthood and base decisions around advancing into the Teen program on a child’s ability to thrive in our program.

We interview the parents and the referring party to determine a child’s maturity and readiness to attend camp, as well as fit into a community. Many of our kids have suffered emotional and physical abuse (in some instances even sexual abuse) and neglect. We want to be aware of potential problems, but do not screen out kids because they have problems. We see with our teens, many of whom have been with Avary for five, six or seven years, that with the right support and the right set of expectations, kids can prosper and dream and act on those dreams, in spite of the hurdles placed before them in the early years.

Rex: You've mentioned that teens are your fastest-growing constituency. To what extent is this the result of kids starting the program at an earlier age and sticking around? And was this part of the plan from the beginning, or an unexpected evolution?

Project Avary:: Avary accepts only children between ages 8.5 and 11. Their commitment to remain involved in our program begins to form with their first summer camp, when they are introduced to our values and practices.

They are told that during the first two years of their involvement with Avary, they will be held to one-week sessions at summer camp; that if they wish to graduate to two-week status and ultimately enter the Teen Leadership program, they must show that they are meeting the objectives under our Personal Responsibility goal. When they reach 13 and 14, they are considered for entry to the Teen program.

However, while in the program, they demonstrate progress in achieving Community Responsibility objectives. In short, we present to our kids values and goals; we support them in achieving those goals; and, as you can see, many strive to meet these expectations.

Was this part of the plan? Yes and no. Yes, because we saw early on a number of the older kids stay with the program. No, because I don’t think Danny or anyone else was prepared for the number of kids who would ultimately stay with Avary into their teens.

Rex: Avary’s long-term, family-like commitment to the kids who enter the program is very striking.  Could you elaborate on how that works, and why it’s important?

Project Avary: What impressed me most when I joined Avary was the constant reference to “the Avary Way.” The Avary Way is based on values and practices that promote healthy lifestyles and appropriate youth development.

When children attend their first summer camp, they learn that Avary focuses on five areas of development: social skills for daily life; creative arts; environmental education; nutrition and physical fitness; and life skills training.

For children to advance through our program — which means graduation from one week to two weeks, entry to the Teen Leadership Program, and graduation to senior staff — they must demonstrate progress in each of these areas.

Surrounding these expectations is a sense of family, which for us means showing our appreciation and committing our support for one another. We take this mutual responsibility seriously.

Rex: Also striking is the fact that Avary has its own rituals, rites of passage and so on. Again, could you talk about how that works, and why it’s important?

Project Avary: We think that rituals, ceremonies, and rites of passage should be used to signal major stages and achievements in our lives. When we mark a child’s advancement with ceremony, we intentionally engage all members of our community in that process. Children and young adults feel honored by the Avary community and, importantly, responsible or beholden to their community.

This is key: the sense of mutual responsibility towards one another. Isn’t this what we mean with all the talk of a civil society? It is more than being respectful; it also means being supportive and available to cheer or help when needed.

Rex: Obviously, for reasons ranging from financial to geographic, Avary can’t help every child of incarcerated parents. Does it have ripple effects with kids and families outside the program? Could the model be adapted elsewhere?

Project Avary: Avary is a very unique organization. We have blended enrichment, mentoring and counseling, environmental stewardship, professional training, and leadership development into an integrated array of activities that promote positive and healthy youth lifestyles.

We see firsthand the positive effects of Avary when our kids commit to Avary in their teen years; when siblings and relatives of one Avary child seek to enter our program; when our older kids enter college or survive multiple foster care placements to live stable and productive lives. I don’t think this is rocket science. When Danny and friends created Avary, they did so out of love for children, and if kids know that someone cares for them, they will usually turn out OK.

Rex: The kids who started in 1999 would be approaching adulthood now. What’s become of them?

Project Avary: I can only comment on the kids who remain involved with us.

The two oldest are on full scholarship at San Diego State University. The next oldest is in community college and living independently. She is a former foster care child, which makes her current circumstances especially laudable.

Next is a young woman we have integrated into our senior summer staff who will be attending San Francisco Community College in the fall and whose tuition at SF State, where she will continue after finishing with the JC, will be covered by the company with whom she is currently employed.

Rex: One of your recent developments is a mentoring program. How does that work, and do you need more mentors? If so, what qualities are you looking for?

Project Avary: Actually, we launched the mentoring program three years ago with the aid of a federal grant. Those funds have ended, and while we will continue to support the mentoring relationships that are currently active, we intend to focus our energy on developing a mentoring program from within.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the children we recruit into the program are choosing to grow up with us. We hope they will become our leaders of the future and have been accelerating their professional development with training and formal job responsibilities.

In the same vein, we intend to develop a buddy system where our older teens are matched to our younger participants for the purpose of providing guidance and support. We think this is more in line with the sense of family that has developed at Avary.

Rex: By your own calculations, you’re serving maybe 1/1000th of the Bay Area kids in this situation. How, if at all, could the Avary model be expanded to serve these other kids without losing quality of service?  What issues are involved?

Project Avary:That’s a good question, and I’m not sure it would be possible — to maintain the same quality of service, I mean. We could expand, bring in more kids, but I’m not sure we would be able to maintain the same feeling of family and community.

In fact, I’m looking at ways to deepen and intensify our familiarity and relationships with the current kids in the program, but that would involve seeing our kids more even more often than we do now.

Rex:Avary seems to be very much about quality rather than quantity. Unlike a lot of weeklong programs that essentially have no contact with kids for the rest of the year, Avary sees the bonds formed at camp as essential and puts a lot of energy into fostering them. Which, in turn, entails a huge commitment of time and energy from not only the kids themselves (and their families), but the staff and volunteers. How do you sustain this energy?

Project Avary: First and foremost, once you become acquainted with the challenges confronting these kids and witness their desire and effort to overcome those challenges, any claim at emotional or physical fatigue is pretty silly.

While I’d been with Avary for nearly a year, I hadn’t attended summer camp until this summer, and I was absolutely unprepared for the profound emotional impact it would have on me.  If I didn’t think so before camp — and I’m sure I’m speaking for many of the summer camp staff — I am particularly resolved, especially after having experienced camp, not to let down these kids regardless of the effort or work required of me.

We call ourselves the Avary family and the Avary community. I believe that referring to and thinking of ourselves as family and community fundamentally determines how we act in relationship to our kids. 

Also, when I interviewed for this position with Danny, he talked about how some day we’d be able to select an executive director from the ranks of former campers. So OK, that’s how I’ve approached this job from the beginning, that our training, expectations, services, and care we provide our kids meet our mission of crafting a safe place where kids will realize their potential.

Why? First, this is the only way that kids with a heightened likelihood of experiencing incarceration sometime in their lives will develop the vision, confidence, and skills to avoid following in the footsteps of their parents. And second, this agency belongs to them — and if this Avary belongs to them, they need the skills and tools to manage it.

“We see with our teens, many of whom have been with Avary for five, six or seven years, that with the right support and the right set of expectations, kids can prosper and dream and act on those dreams, in spite of the hurdles placed before them in the early years.“ – Herb Castillo

“When we mark a child’s advancement with ceremony, we intentionally engage all members of our community in that process. Children and young adults feel honored by the Avary community and, importantly, responsible or beholden to their community.”

– Herb Castillo

Tools and Skills for Life

Avary’s five focus areas provide the skills and tools children need to develop their emotional intelligence and express themselves successfully in the Avary community and in their lives.

1. Social Skills in Daily Life: All program activities emphasize cooperation, tolerance of diverse viewpoints, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Avary’s approach is child-centered rather than curriculum-centered. Counselors are trained to exploit “teachable moments“: When conflicts or meltdowns occur, they are mediated immediately — within the group or in focused conversation between the counselor(s) and the child or children involved. The conflict resolution skills they learn at camp are tools they can take back to their school playgrounds.

2. Creative Arts: Training in the arts offers a variety of benefits, including opportunities for reflection, self-expression, and communication, comfort with speaking and performing in public, and opportunities to discover and explore talents. Campers get a respite from television and other mass media and learn crafts, graphic arts, music, dance, improvisational acting, and storytelling. In past years, they have collaborated to write and perform skits and work on a community mural that celebrates multicultural awareness.

Children are supplied with two journals — one that Avary keeps for them to use for Adventure Day art lessons and reflection time; another in which they can collect friends’ signatures and their private writings and drawings.

3. Environmental Education: Many of these girls and boys have little opportunity to spend time out of doors. Lessons and experiences are designed to help them feel comfortable in nature, appreciate its essential importance, and develop a sense of their own role as stewards. Nature walks, storytelling, mini-science lessons, “eco-treasure hunts,” and an “Interdependence Day” celebration teach the children about the plant and animal life native to various local eco-systems.

4. Physical Activity and Nutrition: Avary participants are among the millions of American children affected by the epidemic of “diseases of lifestyle”— obesity, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. As participants in our programs, they are introduced to good eating habits and a wide variety of sports and physical activities — from indoor rock climbing and ice-skating to deep-water swimming lessons and aikido classes to traditional sports such as volleyball, soccer, and basketball. Cooperation, teamwork, and fitness are emphasized over competition.

Children sit down every day to three family-style meals preceded by group appreciations, singing, and community announcements. Kitchen staff use fresh wholesome ingredients and only minimally processed foods, and do not use refined sugar. Each of the main meals and two daily snacks includes fresh fruits and vegetables. Candy and junk food are not served.

5. Life Skills: Children learn practical skills they can use to serve themselves, the Avary community, and the community at large. The program has included classes in gardening, First Aid & CPR and cooking. At camp, children are responsible for cleaning up their cabins and are assigned to do chores in common areas, and help with meal preparation and cleanup.

—Project Avary

Xavier Meets His Mentor

From the Project Avary newsletter

“One of the great things about the Avary community is the chance to see synergy happen; to witness connections made between campers, families and staff arise in surprising ways. A great example of this phenomenon occurred at our 2005 Camp Reunion and Holiday Party.

“Pete Sears, a longtime friend of Danny Rifkin and father of one of our counselors, offered to play the piano for our party. We felt very lucky to have the donated time of a professional musician, providing ambiance for the event. When Pete arrived, he happily began playing what seemed to him to be background music for the Avary families, staff, and supporters in attendance.

“While the rest of the children waited for a Bingo game to start, Xavier took an interest in what Pete was doing, and asked if he could play too. It wasn’t long before the pair was jamming together, with Pete establishing a structured baseline to support the boy’s improvisational spirit. They quickly gained the attention of the whole room.

“Most surprising, the young man — just 9 years old — had never had piano lessons. The pair formed an instant musical friendship and Pete soon approached Avary with a request: could he help Xavier develop this talent?

"In 2006, we were able to purchase a used piano for Xavier and match him with Pete as a mentor. Unlike other mentor matches, where meetings are a chance to get out, Pete and Xavier spend most of their time in Xavier’s home in front of the small upright piano that sits at the base of the stairs. Sometimes they just improv jazzy riffs, but often they work at whole songs.

“Recently, Xavier played ‘Amazing Grace’ for his church and received a standing ovation. His grandma says it’s amazing how he’s excelling at the piano. We think the difference a caring adult can make is amazing.”

—Project Avary newsletter

“Many of the children we recruit into the program are choosing to grow up with us. We hope they will become our leaders of the future, and have been accelerating their professional development with training and formal job responsibilities.” – Herb Castillo

Maria Schell, Project Avary Program Director

Rex Board Perspective

Rex Foundation and Project Avary board member Cliff Palefsky says: “Project Avary is an extraordinary program that is trying to provide a sense of community and continuity to good young kids who are very much victims of their parents’ misconduct. Rather than be a high-level policy group, Avary literally is out there trying to break the cycle of violence one child at a time.

“There are several components to the program. The summer camp is the entry point where the kids get a chance to get away, commune with nature instead of an inner-city environment, and spend time with other children in similar circumstances. The camp helps create the feeling of community and exposes the kids to the culture of mutual respect and non-violence, and tries to help provide them with the skills necessary to navigate the world. The staff is composed of some wonderful, nurturing and well-trained counselors. We have psychologists available to help in individual cases.

“During the year there are monthly Adventure Days where a group of kids get together for participatory activities such as kayaking, horseback riding, and rock climbing in addition to some educational or skill building sessions. We’ve had a mentoring program, which has had a profound impact on the lives of some kids and their mentors.

“This community, families with incarcerated parents, is not among the most sympathetic classes of folks out there, and they’re often neglected by other funders and donors. The foster care system is broken, so these innocent kids are truly victims of the system. That is why it is so important for Rex to support this kind of program.”

“I don’t think this is rocket science. When Danny (Rifkin) and friends created Avary, they did so out of love for children, and if kids know that someone cares for them, they will usually turn out OK.”

– Herb Castillo

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why Not Teach the Kids the Music They Like?

Why Not Teach the Kids the Music They Like?

Little Kids Rock Takes a Radical Approach to Musical Education in the Schools

 by Mary Eisenhart

The sad state of music and arts education in most of America’s schools, especially the public ones, is an oft-told tale. In 1996, a Bay Area teacher decided to do something about it. What began with scrounged instruments and after-school lessons for his students is now Little Kids Rock.

When musician David Wish reported for his day job, teaching 1st and 2nd graders at a Redwood City, California elementary school, back in the mid-’90s, he quickly found that music, along with art and PE, had simply disappeared from the curriculum in an educational culture of tight budgets and obsession with test scores.

In contrast to untold numbers of frustrated teachers before him, Wish took matters into his own hands, scrounging instruments wherever he could find them and teaching his students music on his own time. After school.  Before school.  During lunch.

While the project’s immediate popularity owed a lot to Wish’s contagious enthusiasm, it was also due to the course materials Wish found himself developing, based on the radical notion of teaching the kids the music they liked. Rather than force young Ricky Martin fans to slog through “Down in the Valley” and “Swans on the Lake,” he taught them “La Vida Loca.” (As he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005: “Take Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s two chords: D and A. Do you realize how many songs are structured around only D and A? When you teach a kid how to play a Selena song that is D and A, you’re also teaching them to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You’re teaching them to play. Period.”)

Pretty soon his music classes became a victim of their own success and he had to start turning students away because he had no more time. At that point he started recruiting his fellow teachers to teach a class or two.

One thing led to another, word got out, rock stars started taking notice, and the program started to expand. In July 2002 it formally incorporated as the not-for-profit Little Kids Rock, and a few months later the Rex Foundation became one of its earliest supporters.

Today, Little Kids Rock, now based in New Jersey, serves thousands of students in grassroots programs in nine states, and continues to expand rapidly. We checked in with Wish to find out why music education matters so much, and how LKR’s work extends far beyond its own classes.

Rex Foundation: Why is music and arts funding in the schools being cut — and why is that a bad idea?

David Wish, Little Kids Rock: I think it’s being cut because the constituents that it affects can’t vote. It’s always easiest to take away from people who don’t have the power to stick up for themselves, like the very young or the very old — that’s one of the places that you see people cutting because you don’t hear the screams from the victims till much later.

Why is that a bad idea? I believe that arts education brings children more rapidly and directly in touch with their creative side than many other academic areas — yet all academic areas rely on creativity for efficacy.

Rex: For example?

LKR: Try to solve a math word problem just by knowing how to multiply, divide, add and subtract. It can’t be done. You need to think creatively. You need to be able to take information that you’ve never been presented with before and synthesize it in new and exciting ways — even if it’s something as unexciting on the face of it as solving a word problem.

Or coming up with a scientific theory. Or trying to explain the motivations of a political ruler that lived in a century and a continent light years away from your own. All of these things require creativity. Problem-solving in your interpersonal life requires creativity.

I believe there is sort of a puritanical streak in American culture that’s as old as American culture itself, a sense that if something’s fun, it might be frivolous. So things like music and the arts, which are very much fun, are also seen as frivolous, these little extras. But I would posit that the creativity of the individual suffers across the board when they are not able to express themselves in the arts.

It would fly in the face of what we expect from an educational system if an adult could grow up and in every other way be whole, but couldn’t add, subtract, multiply and divide. They can hold a job, they can write, they can read the paper; they just can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide.

Or maybe they can do everything except they can’t read. Or that they don’t know the most basic scientific principles — like gravity exists, the earth is round, there’s an atmosphere and different types of matter. It’s unacceptable, and it actually doesn’t happen — if you go through the school system, unless you have severe learning disabilities, you come out with something of an education in all those areas.

But one exception would be music.

Rex: So you’ve been doing this 10 years — how did you get started?

LKR: I was working in a school in Redwood City that had no music program. I was also a guitar player, so I took it on myself to start giving guitar lessons to the kids in my 1st and 2nd grade classes. That was the sum total of my aspiration: I felt it could be done, I felt it should be done, and it was something I could do. So I begged and borrowed a little fleet of instruments and started teaching them.

But there was a little interim step. I needed teaching materials. So like any dutiful teacher I went to the source. I went to music stores and music publishers, and I looked at what was available.

I found it basically so uniformly dry and unappealing and useless that I had to come up with something in its place. You’d pick up Volume 1: Guitar, and open it up to the first page, and there’s “Red River Valley.” You open up the next method book and it’s Beethoven’s Ninth.

I’m looking at a class that’s filled with first-generation immigrants from Central America who are obsessed with Selena and Ricky Martin and Carlos Santana. So I thought, why don’t we make that the canon then? Why don’t we take a student-centered approach? Why don’t I not take my own musical tastes and make that the starting point; why don’t I take the radical idea of “Well, kids have this cultural capital, let’s put that in the middle”?

At the time I would have defined it as “Why not teach the kids the music they like?” You like Ricky Martin? Sure, we can do “La Vida Loca.” It became a very natural thing.

It was a very successful class, for me and the students, so I added another one and another one. I was teaching so many students at my school, while being a regular classroom teacher — every single one of these classes was either before school, after school, or, towards the end, even during my lunch hour. Then it got to the point where I couldn’t take on any more students, which put me in the ironic position of having to say no. Where I was trying to extend the franchise, now I became the axeman, which sort of seemed karmically unfair.

So I started reaching out to my colleagues, initially just to handle the overflow, and say, “Hey look, I’m running all these classes, why don’t you do one?”

I tried that, and I realized for that to be successful I had to articulate, concisely and in teacher-friendly language, what I was doing specifically with the children that was resonating so strongly with them. That led to me codifying and defining what was happening naturally into something that could be replicated by other people through a set of pedagogical beliefs and a set of curriculum. By using that and using teachers to teach, all of a sudden it started replicating. It wasn’t about me as a teacher, it was about a set of teaching ideas being more effective at eliciting success from children.

Why does this work? Well, Little Kids Rock leverages a number of things that make it successful. One of the things is that we leverage the cultural capital of kids everywhere by focusing on the music they like. But I also leverage the human capital of schools everywhere by identifying individuals who have committed themselves to teaching, namely teachers, and then arming them with our content and our training, so they can then dovetail that into what they’re already doing.

When I started doing that, that’s when it really started to replicate and grow — to the point where my first class was 20 kids and now we’re at more than 10,000, and we’ve basically doubled each year since 2000. We’re poised to do that again this year. By the end of the 2007-2008 school year we’re likely to be at 20,000.

Rex:: What determines which schools get the program?

LKR: We identify large urban districts where more than 50% of students participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, which is a poverty index that all public schools are required by law to maintain. They have a very high concentration of low-income families.

The schools of the United States are outrageously segregated in terms of economics. Those who get to choose their ZIP code have the best schools in the country. The people who don’t get to choose have less, sometimes deplorably so.

We go into those districts, and recruit and train those schoolteachers. There’s nothing about our curriculum or our pedagogy that’s class-specific. I believe this program would be equally compelling to children of every economic class. But because we have finite resources, we direct them to where the need is greatest.

That’s beginning to change a little with Little Kids Rock TV (see sidebar), where we’re going to take the same pedagogical ideas and create video of them. Those are going to be given away as a free public resource to whomever. We believe musical education is a right; we have a way of offering it up to people that is effective, and puts them in touch with becoming a music maker very quickly. I think that’s a noble thing to do for a person.

Going into a school is a little bit different. It costs us about $100 per student, and we generally don’t enter a district with fewer than 4-600 students.

Little Kids Rock gives out thousands of free instruments to music students every year.

Rex: Does the district invite you, or does somebody say, “Hey, you ought to be going into this district?”

LKR: At this point it’s both. We’re still a very young organization, and most of our growth is opportunistic, undergirded by some strategy. Some are no-brainers — the Los Angeles Unified School District, biggest school district in the country, totally meets our criteria, slam-dunk, so we’re there.  We chose that, we tried to get funding, and we were successful. We’ve been there going on four years.

But we’re also in Shreveport, Louisiana. We’re there because James Burton, who played with Elvis Presley and is one of the most recorded guitarists in history, is from Shreveport. He has the James Burton Guitar Festival, and he wanted to bring the program into his city, so he facilitated that.

So we go where there’s interest, and we go where we see an opportunity, where a community might support this kind of an effort. Or we just go in because we come up with the resources ourselves and just direct it that way.

We might not go to a single school because it’s just one school, but some of our programs have started with a single phone call from a single teacher. We’re in DC for that reason now. Philadelphia’s another example.

Rex: So you do want to hear from teachers.

LKR: Oh, we always like hearing from teachers. We serve children only because we serve teachers. If we didn’t serve teachers we couldn’t reach the children.

Our model isn’t to find volunteers to go in and pay them and have them teach; we’re having the teachers do it. And teachers can get free resources from us as well, even without being in the program.

There are two crises facing music education today. One is that it doesn’t happen; that’s a problem that no nonprofit will ever solve, because it’s too vast in its scope. We’re talking about 15-20 million U.S. school-age children not receiving music education; show me a not-for-profit that can generate a budget to address that. I don’t even think the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could do that for more than 50 years, and then it’d go bankrupt.

It needs to be something that we as a culture place importance in. I do believe it’s cyclical, and I do believe it will come back.

That’s the first issue, and we do address it, because we’re giving away thousands of free instruments every year. But that’s just a drop in the bucket.

On the other hand, there’s the second problem, which is that oftentimes music education is outdated, oftentimes people have exposure to it, and oftentimes they vote with their feet and they leave, and they grow up with regret. They grow up without fully developing themselves and their education because they’re alienated from music at any other level than just being a consumer of it. That’s an issue that Little Kids Rock is really seeking to address, or at least I think it’s a place where we can affect millions and millions of people in this country, and it doesn’t take a giant budget. It takes vision, and that’s what we’re supplying.

If the expectation of music education is that you leave and you can be first, second or third chair in a symphony orchestra, or you can be a sight-reading session jazz musician — then yes, it’s true, only 5-10% of the population could and should bother wasting their time with music education. Unfortunately, in a de facto way, that’s kind of how it’s structured; the unspoken aim is that you’re going to get to the end and be either a concert violinist or a sight-reading session jazz musician. 

Now, if you look at the world of commerce, that is a miniscule slice of the music-making pie of how you could make a living; and if you look at the world of life, it’s an infinitesimally small slice of what playing music could mean in your life.

Public speaking is something we all have to do, for example. I may not be Martin Luther King, and I may not ever be able to speak as eloquently and with such an on-fire sense of mission as he was. So I have a decision to make: either I’m just not going to talk, or I’m going to do it the way I do it, for myself and for meaning in my life.

Likewise math. I wouldn’t say that I’m mathematically inclined or that I have some special facility, but I use math for meaning in my life, and it’s very important to me. I can balance the budget for this not-for-profit and make sure we’re fiscally solvent and that we can meet our mission. I can figure out the tip on a bill. I can figure out my household budget. So math is very meaningful to me.

Now what if music were similar? You might not be Jimi Hendrix, or Andres Segovia, but is that the standard you need? Is that the point of entry? Shouldn’t the point of entry be that you should be able to express yourself on an instrument? And then you, as a democratic citizen of this democratic nation, can define how much time and energy you want to put into that, and rise to your own ability, to the extent that you want to.

That’s the thing that really amazes me and I find really upsetting as an educator — meeting these people who spent their entire childhood studying and can’t play a song. It’s mind-boggling, and it wouldn’t be acceptable in any other arena. I think it’s indicative of a need to revitalize the way music education is taught, and that’s what I think LKR is really striving to do.

Rex: Are the same kids in the program for multiple years, or is it a fixed-length program?

LKR: The answer is really both, because we work in districts that have no music teachers, and when we do that it’s an after-school enrichment program. Those students may only be in the program for a year because perhaps the teacher elects not to do it the next year, because it doesn’t fit their schedule. Or they may be in it for multiple years, but it’s a little more tumultuous. There’s a lot of variables.

We also work with music teachers, and the music teacher’s there year after year and it’s their defined job, and therefore there’s no problem. They structure it so the students can continue.

Again, while LKR can provide guidance in the curriculum and the pedagogy, when it gets to scheduling, that’s up to the individual teacher at different schools. If we were to start dictating it we would lose our constituents, because some teachers can’t do it after school, and some can’t do it during the school day.

Our only requirement is that it be taught at least once a week, for at least one academic hour. And then we have some teachers who cram in 15 hours of LKR time a week; we have some that cram in as little as one hour. We have some teachers who reach as few as 10 students annually, as an after-school program, and we have some teachers who incorporate it into their school culture and reach literally every single child at their school.

Rex: To what extent do you chart what happens to the kids who go through the program?

LKR: We use a product called SalesForce, which is an online customer management system — they’re a great company, they give their service free to nonprofits, and their services are extremely valuable.

All of our teachers use it to track their students, to see how they’re doing against the LKR rubric. How is this student doing in terms of their psychosocial gains? How is this student doing in terms of composition, in terms of improvisation, in terms of the discrete didactic skills by grade level that we’ve identified as necessary?

Now, this is new for us, and it’s being implemented for the first time. Basically all our students will be being tracked and given a LKR report card, if you will — I know it’s not in vogue, but it’s a way for us to determine the efficacy of our efforts. We’ve developed a measurement system that’s different from a standard music evaluation, because it’s much more competency and performance-based assessment, as opposed to task or skills-based assessment.

Like, for example, “Has the child composed original music?” That would be one very important rubric. “To what extent does the child know how to improvise?” That would be another one. “To what extent can the child play music that’s appealing to them?” “To what extent has the child mastered a self-defined canon?” All these things are being measured. I’m just talking about an honest assessment and having metrics. I’m not talking about having mandatory testing, but determining a set of criteria by which you can measure your own success, and holding yourself accountable.

Up until we started using this system, all of our reporting has really been more anecdotal. We hear back from the teachers, we hear from the students. But I’m a schoolteacher, and I don’t really like anecdotal measurements. They’re really great for ego gratification, but they’re not really great for efficacy.

One of my great friends and counselors is a man named Bob Morrison, who’s the founding executive director of the Music for All Foundation, the VH-1 Save the Music Foundation — he’s a heavyweight in the world of music-based philanthropy. He says, “Without statistics, you’re just another guy with an opinion.” And I like that. I’m not a statistics wonk, but I want a healthy balance of both. Anecdotal is great, but it’s far from enough.

When I was teaching 1st  grade, you’d be judged on one criterion alone as a teacher: Did your students learn to read? It’s not like, “Gee, Juan’s such a sweet little boy and he really learned to get along with his peers and it was really wonderful having him in the class, and he loves me and I love him and we’re all just a big happy ed family.”  OK, can Juan read? “Well, he’s really applying himself, he’s really trying, he loves to read…” OK, but, can Juan read?

As a first grade teacher it was always a major point of pride for me that my students — and I only worked in troubled districts — read at or above grade level in the 1st grade, this in districts where this was not the status quo.

I believe that as the founder I have a few more years to put my cultural imprint on this and set the organizational tone for the years to come. I want to bring that same kind of transparency and accountability for ourselves internally, and of course for our funders externally, as we measure the impact of our work. Because when you’re in the nonprofit world, there’s one thing that’s for certain: you live to serve. If you don’t, there’s a lot of other fields to explore. But if you’re really in touch with your mission, then the only thing that’s really important to you is whether you’re fulfilling it or not.

“I believe that arts education brings children more rapidly and directly in touch with their creative side than many other academic areas — yet all academic areas rely on creativity for efficacy.” – David Wish


"There is sort of a puritanical streak in American culture that’s as old as American culture itself, a sense that if something’s fun, it might be frivolous. So things like music and the arts, which are very much fun, are also seen as frivolous, these little extras. But I would posit that the creativity of the individual suffers across the board when they are not able to express themselves in the arts.”

– David Wish

Rocking the World: Little Kids Rock TV

When David Wish first started recruiting his fellow teachers, he realized he had to codify the hands-on, “teach the kids the music they like” methods he’d come up with — not just because they were so successful, but because they were so radically different from conventional music education. As a result, when a new teacher comes on board with the program today, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel — a wealth of materials evolved from years of finding what works best is already available.

But even as Little Kids Rock reaches thousands of new students every year, Wish readily concedes that not even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can provide music education to every child who needs it. So Little Kids Rock got creative again with Little Kids Rock TV.

Whatever your age, location, or economic status, you can check out tutorial videos on the site, from guitar power chords to drum licks, all delivered with the trademark LKR style of, as Wish puts it, “the Suzuki Method meets the Rolling Stones.”  And it’s all free of charge, with more lessons added often.

Says Wish, “We believe musical education is a right; we have a way of offering it up to people that is effective, and puts them in touch with becoming a music maker very quickly. I think that’s a noble thing to do for a person.”

Rex, Youth and the Arts 

Many schools across the U.S., particularly public ones, face budget constraints and challenges to beef up standardized test scores. As a result, they’ve severely cut, if not eliminated, music and arts education.  Over its 24-year history, the Rex Foundation has, like many other philanthropic organizations, helped to fund grassroots groups that find innovative ways to foster creativity in young people and serve as models for similar efforts elsewhere.

This is consistent with the Rex mission statement: The Rex Foundation aims to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, assist others less fortunate than ourselves, protect the rights of indigenous people and ensure their cultural survival, build a stronger community, and educate children and adults everywhere.

Says Executive Director Sandy Sohcot, “The Rex Foundation has supported youth-oriented educational and creative arts programs throughout its 24-year history, sharing a relatively common view that such programs help young people thrive and succeed – and that helping young people flourish is not only good for the individuals, but also for the greater community. The different art forms – dance, music, poetry, fine arts – provide a range of opportunities to engage young people in positive, constructive and healthful activities that tap their creative energies and encourage all kinds of learning.”

The benefits extend far beyond fun and creativity. Explains Sohcot, "Many of these programs provide safe and constructive vehicles for helping young people express their concerns about – and more positively grapple with – their own challenging social and economic situations: poverty, homelessness, violence, threats of family deportation, and unhealthy, even toxic environments.  And, because of their positive experiences in these programs, many of the participants are often able to gain greater academic success and leadership opportunities, which in turn lead to enhanced and transformed life situations that might otherwise have not been possible.”

These are some recent Rex grantees whose work enriches youthful lives with art and music:

Marsh Youth Theater (Jerry Garcia Award, 2005)

Kids on Broadway (2006)

Tule Elk Park Child Development Center (1994, 2006)

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls (2006)

BAYCAT: Bayview Hunters Point Center for Arts & Technology (2007)

Destiny Arts Center (2007)

Monroe Elementary Arts Enrichment Program (2007)

Youth Movement Records (2007)

Rex Board Perspective

Rex Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:  As David Wish explained his motivations for beginning the Little Kids Rock program — the simplicity, yet power of engaging kids with easy-to-learn guitar chords of the music they liked, and his Teach-the-Teacher approach for extending the reach of the program — the teacher in me was immediately interested.  I was even more intrigued by the video showing the broadly diverse young students performing their original songs with such spirit and enthusiasm, and by seeing that spirit reflected when I visited the sites. Clearly, Little Kids Rock was a very effective way to provide life-enriching musical involvements to young people in schools that, due to declining funding, could not otherwise provide this vital experience.

A few months after the Rex Foundation grant had been issued, I had the pleasure of attending a special program for Little Kids Rock at a San Francisco elementary school.  The program included Bonnie Raitt, Norton Buffalo and Tom Waits.  I saw David Wish in action. First he engaged the students to show off their knowledge of different key chords.  Then, within minutes he elicited a few words, two being treasure and measure, along with some chords, and then had everyone playing a new song created on the spot called “Measure the Treasure.”  The celebrity musicians joined in for quite a jam. 

Though several years have passed, I still recall the magic of watching these young kids being so engaged, and having such a wonderful opportunity to experience their creativity and talents.

The Rex Foundation includes in its mission statement promote individuality in the arts, recognizing the value of the arts to the human experience, whether to elicit each person’s creative potential, encourage learning of other disciplines, foster cultural development and community connections, or simply to engender positive feelings. Supporting Little Kids Rock is one great way to make it possible for young people who, through no fault of their own, might otherwise miss the opportunity to have this invaluable life experience.

“When you’re in the nonprofit world, there’s one thing that’s for certain: you live to serve. If you don’t, there’s a lot of other fields to explore. But if you’re really in touch with your mission, then the only thing that’s really important to you is whether you’re fulfilling it or not.” – David Wish

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls

Discovering their inner musician, New York girls

and young women find a whole new way to look at life.

By Mary Eisenhart

"We've found that girls who might not have ever met in their home communities in New York can come together and share a love of music, start working together and bring their ideas together — and it works. – Karla Schickele

For the last two summers in New York City, the Willie Mae Rock Camp has given girls and young woman — mostly local, some from around the U.S. and beyond — a week of total immersion in music. And, quite often, a life-changing experience.

"Rock camp," says the camp's Web site, "is dedicated to youth empowerment through music. The program is founded on the proposition that music can serve as a powerful tool of self-expression and self-esteem-building for girls and young women, and can help combat racism and stereotypes by building bridges of communication and shared experience among girls from diverse communities."

Also, it's a lot of fun.

All Photos by Kate Milford

The Willie Mae Rock Camp (named after blues legend Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton) got its start in 2004 after alt-rocker Karla Schickele spent a couple of summers as a volunteer bass teacher at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon.

"It absolutely changed my life," says Schickele, who, as a proud native of Brooklyn, quickly decided NYC needed its own version. "So I reached out to some other women musicians here, and we spent about a year getting together at coffee shops, planning and working. We did the first rock camp in summer of 2005.

Schickele, a founding director, also had the idea to name the New York camp after the blues legend. "We like to educate the girls about all the women who played music before them. We thought one way to do that would be to name the camp after one of the seminal women of rock 'n' roll, Big Mama Thornton."

Determined from the beginning to draw a diverse cross-section of girls from one of the world's most diverse cities, the founders planned to offer full or partial scholarships to at least half the campers at each session. Then, they cast their net.

"We used the powerful tool of word of mouth," Schickele recalls. "Our volunteers who were teachers put the word out to their students. Then we also had volunteers on bikes going around to various New York City neighborhoods. Particularly we wanted to target low-income and under-serviced communities in New York, where there are a lot of kids who don't have access to summer programs the way kids do in affluent communities. So we had volunteers going out on bikes, bringing flyers and posters to community centers and schools and shops and just talking to people on the street.

"We were going up to girls on the street and saying, 'Hey, are you into music?'" she laughs.

At the beginning of the weeklong day camp, girls form bands, with whom they'll practice, write songs, and perform in a concert at the end of the week. They'll get lessons in their chosen instrument from a pro. Along the way, they'll get a crash course in other practical realities of band life, e.g. making custom T-shirts and posters. And working together.

The rest of the year, the founders and a host of others in this almost all-volunteer organization (the only employee is a part-time office staffer to keep things running smoothly) work ceaselessly to gather support from parents, the community, industry and beyond. An online list of Willie Mae's supporters reveals a multi-generational, multi-genre roster of artists: Fiona Apple. Neko Case. Ani DiFranco. The Donnas. Deborah Harry. Natalie Merchant.

Probably the most popular fundraiser of the year is the annual Ladies' Rock Camp, which raises money for the scholarship fund. Says Schickele, "Once a year we do a mini rock camp — it's a three-day program for about 50 women who pay tuition. We get volunteers to work at that event as well, so all the proceeds go to the scholarship fund.

"It's an incredibly powerful and moving experience. A lot of the women who sign up for it haven't played music before, and just always thought it would be fun to be in a band. And the transformation they go through in three days is really extraordinary."

The Willie Mae Rock Camp received a grant of $2,500 from the Rex Foundation in 2006. Says Schickele, "We're very grateful to the Rex Foundation for its support, which is really helping us out this year."

We were recently able to spends some time talking with Schickele about the Rock Camp's work, how it helps participants elsewhere in their lives, and where the founders would like to take it from here.

Rex Foundation: An undertaking the size of this camp, with all its space and equipment requirements, isn't cheap. Where does your funding come from?

Karla Schickele, Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls: We do fundraising year round to make the one-week program happen. We solicit musical instrument manufacturers for gear donations; some of them have been quite generous, and given us guitars, drums and amps. We try to reach out to foundations and raise a lot of individual contributions. We hold fundraising events throughout the year to raise the cash we need to buy gear we can't get donated, and to help pay the rent and our other costs.

Rex: How do your teachers hear about you and get involved?

Willie Mae: As with the campers, it's a combination of word of mouth and concerted outreach efforts on our part. We strive to have our campers and our volunteers reflect the diversity of New York City, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world, racially and ethnically. So we really wanted camp to be a place where people from different backgrounds and different communities can come together and make music together.

From the get-go we found it fairly easy to attract a diverse camper group, but our volunteer group in the first year was overwhelmingly white. So we've been working to reach out to musicians, women of color who are musicians, and also groups that provide leadership, like the Black Rock Coalition, to try and diversify our volunteer group. It's going great.

Rex: At least half your campers are on scholarship, and some of them come from all over the world. How do you do outreach outside of New York, and how do you ensure that all this diversity doesn't simply lead to conflict and bad vibes?

Willie Mae: We don't do outreach outside of New York. Our mission is to serve girls in New York City. We are open to girls from anywhere, but that's not part of our outreach program. Any girls who find us out there in the world have just come upon us — we get a fair amount of media coverage, and people find us on the Internet.

The question of bringing people together — what we've found, and this is no big news, is that music really brings out the best in people. We've found that girls who might not have ever met in their home communities in New York can come together and share a love of music, start working together and bring their ideas together — and it works. There's something magic that happens when people play music together. It creates lines of communication and builds bridges in ways that I think are unique to music.

It's not that there isn't conflict, because in any band there is conflict (laughs). One of the things we do is provide a band coach to every band. The band coach is an adult, an experienced woman musician who helps the girls find a working process. Like if someone has an idea for a lyric and one of the girls says, "Oh, that's so stupid," the band coach is there to say, "Hey, is there a different way we could talk about this?" So it becomes a weeklong exercise in communication, both through music and also through the working process of writing music.

Rex: You talk about how they form bands on the first day of camp — how does that work, and how do you avoid having it turn into nasty clique behavior?

Willie Mae: Good question.

At the Portland camp originally, they just had the names of different kinds of genres on the wall, and the girls would go to the kind of music they wanted to play, and then just sort themselves into groups, in a way that, as a volunteer, I found very traumatic to watch. It was a little like picking sports teams in school, and didn't seem to really serve the process. So one of the changes we made in New York was to overhaul that system.

Our system is based on speed dating (laughs). All the girls are given packets that have the name of every other girl in the camp, and a couple of questions. Like, if you could be any animal, what would you want to be? And maybe also some music-related questions. But in my experience, a lot of bands get formed not because of a shared musical sensibility — that can be part of it, but a shared broader sensibility can often be a really good foundation.

And also I have a personal aversion to the use of musical genres as a limitation. I don't think anyone should have to choose whether they want to play this kind of music or that kind of music. I'm much more interested in girls inventing entirely new genres of music.

So for these reasons, we do this exercise that involves each girl interviewing every other girl at camp for a few minutes. It's a big, joyous, loud exercise, all the girls talking to each other at the same time — and then after a few minutes they switch. So at the end of the exercise every girl has talked to everyone else. And then they sit down and they write down the names of a bunch of girls they would like to be in a band with.

They hand them to us and go off and do a workshop, and we go into a back room and form bands, based on their requests, but also making sure that no girl is left out, and no girl knows what the other girl had asked for.

We then announce the bands, and they immediately go off and start working. We don't really allow any time for "Oh, I really wanted to be with her…," that kind of thing. Life is too short.

Rex: Why did you decide to name the camp after Big Mama Thornton?

Willie Mae: I like the idea that we really try to pay respect to the early women of rock. We're not limited to rock music at our camp, but we do like to try to educate the girls about all the women who played music before them. So we thought one way to do that would be to name the camp after one of the seminal women of rock 'n' roll, Big Mama Thornton.

We also name the rooms: the bass room is named the Carol Kaye room after the bass player, and the piano room is the Nina room after Nina Simone. We also have little bios of those artists up in the rooms so the girls can learn more about different women. We also have a workshop on the history of women in music. We try to get that information in a couple of different ways.

Rex: You've only been doing this for a couple of years, so you don't have a really long-term perspective, but do you see the same girls coming back more than once?

Willie Mae: Oh yeah!

Rex: What benefits do you see from kids going to the camp?

Willie Mae: We've heard from parents about the incredible increase in self-confidence that they've seen in their daughters. There have been girls who were having trouble in school and were incredibly shy, and who only played music alone in their rooms. Or talked about music but said, "I don't know how to write a song." And then we hear about how they say, "I wrote a song!"

A lot of them find ways to play music. Some of them don't play music during the year, but we find that they feel really good about themselves coming out of rock camp and they carry that with them when they go back to school.

Rex: What would you do if you had more resources? What's your wish list, and how do people like Rex help with all of that?

Willie Mae: Support from foundations like Rex is absolutely key to the success of our program and our ability to keep doing it. It's really through foundation support that we've been able to have our part-time staff member, which has allowed us to streamline operations and do a better job.

Our goals are to start an after-school program. There are schools that have expressed an interest in having us come in, and the girls themselves are just dying for the opportunity to do this program year round. So that's high on our wish list.

"A lot of them find ways to play music (after camp). Some of them don't play music during the year, but we find that they feel really good about themselves coming out of rock camp, and they carry that with them when they go back to school." – Karla Schickele

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tule Elk Park

Tule Elk Park
Child Development Center

By Mary Eisenhart

“Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on,
that will be the sort of gauze through which
he or she will see all the world afterwards.”
—Wallace Stegner,
(quote at entrance to Tule Elk Park)

“Rita, who’s she?” an inquiring 5-year-old, pointing in my general direction, asks teacher Rita Hurault, who’s gathering her kindergarteners and 1st graders as they arrive for their after-school program. “Who are you?” says another, looking up at me.

This is my friend Mary, says Hurault. She’s here to write a story about the school.

Nobody tells them they shouldn’t ask questions like that. Nobody tells them they shouldn’t call their teacher by her first name. And, once their curiosity about the stranger is addressed, the kids are off to more interesting pursuits. Playing among the trees. Digging in the garden. Observing the worms and other fauna near the compost bin. They’re especially happy today, because it’s Friday and they don’t have homework (yes, in San Francisco, kindergarteners have homework...), so they’re free to play and explore longer than usual.

Discovering bugs in the compost.

It’s a typical afternoon at Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, a two-time grant recipient from the Rex Foundation.

Originally founded in 1943, as the Yerba Buena Children’s Center, Tule Elk Park is part of the San Francisco public school system, with a full-day program for toddlers and preschoolers and an after-school program for kindergarteners through 4th graders (who also attend all day during school vacations). Says site manager Alan Broussard, “When the program was conceived in 1943, we were in the midst of World War II, and the purpose of the program was to support low-income families, primarily women who were entering the workforce in large numbers for the first time, the Rosie the Riveter moms. It was a child-care situation, but because it was connected to the school district, it always had an educational focus, preparing kids for kindergarten. I don’t think we’ve changed that dramatically — our primary audience is still low-income children. We’re really a gateway to the K-12 system; we’re a foundation for lifelong learning.”

Site director Alan Broussard, with tile art documenting
an earlier class's study of alternative energy.

Like most urban schools, the center was, for most of its existence, a barren expanse of concrete and asphalt, in a neighborhood where even a street tree is a rarity. But in 1990, it began a remarkable process of self-transformation that’s still ongoing.

Before the transformation: 20,000 square feet of asphalt.
Photo courtesy of Tule Elk Park Child Development Center.

It all started when Broussard, then a teacher at the school, approached Lynn Juarez, then the site manager, about the possibility of cutting a hole in the surrounding fence to allow his students access to a small adjacent patch of dirt in which to garden.

He explains, “Our kids were mostly inner-city children whose opportunity to experience and be associated with nature was pretty limited. When we took them just to the park down the street, where there was dew on the grass in the morning, and bugs, they didn’t want to sit on the grass, because it was either too wet, or there were too many bugs — it was just completely foreign to them.

'Angels dropping from the sky': a volunteer crew of concrete specialists lays the foundation for the future Tule Elk Park. Photo courtesy of Tule Elk Park Child Development Center.

“We began to wonder why we weren’t supporting kids to really connect with nature. There’s such a deprivation around this issue, particularly with urban low-income kids. And that was the impetus to creating something much more than a hole in the fence — to really think how to use 20,000 square feet of asphalt to create a green space that kids could learn in and from.”

Says Hurault, who came to the center in the mid-’90s, “What these children needed deeply was a connection to the natural world. They were scared to death of grass, dirt and bugs. And that’s the stuff of life.”

With the public school district, like many others, perennially strapped for funds, any such project was going to require serious creativity and community involvement. Broussard recalls, “It was an effort that involved seeking out people initially who were willing to suspend reality and dream with us, and we went about developing this design by seeking out people whose imagination could envision that.

The garden at Tule Elk Park.

“We found a landscape architect who was willing to think this through with us; we engaged our parents by bringing them together on Saturdays to talk about what we had envisioned and ask for their input. We did the same thing in the classrooms, where the children drew and had discussions about what this new playground might look like. Then we reached beyond the school community and began to find people in the broader community, particularly in the neighborhood, who we thought would be receptive and interested in supporting such an idea. And we began to have community meetings.”

The transformation began in 1992 when the San Francisco Conservation Corps began ripping out the playground’s asphalt, but the process was fraught with unexpected obstacles and equally unexpected miracles from the beginning.

“We envisioned this happening in an orderly way in phases as we got some funding,” Broussard laughs, “but after we ripped up out quite a big chunk of the asphalt, what we were left with was mud. And it was winter, and everybody was miserable, and there was no playground, and there were some very challenging points in this whole process.

Entering Tule Elk Park. In the background: a parking garage.

“But then a family who’d had a child here who had special needs discovered that we were in the process of trying to do this; they contacted a relative who happened to be connected to a construction crew whose specialty was concrete work. Over a couple of weekends, it was kind of like angels dropping from the sky: they realized this terrible situation we were in with all this dirt and mud; we found the funding for the materials, and they came and provided all the labor for this concrete work to lay out the structure of the park. They did it for free, and it was connected to this feeling that we had done this very special thing for this very special child, and they had never forgotten that.”

Over the next few years, piece by piece, the garden took shape: trees, an edible plant garden, a butterfly habitat, totem pole sculptures of native animals. Private funds paid the salary of a garden educator, an art instructor, and more. And in 1996, the Yerba Buena Children’s Center got a new name: the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, taking its name from an animal indigenous to the area.

"Peace Pole" in the garden.

Soon Tule Elk was generating its own ripple effects, inspiring the creation of the San Francisco Green Schoolyards Alliance, which successfully campaigned for the passage of a bond initiative in 2003 to "green" other schoolyards in the city. That launched similar projects at 16 schools; a bond initiative on the 2006 ballot seeks funds to expand the program.

“Sometimes I think it’s a little nutty to do this big thing with one little school,” Broussard says. “And then I think, if one little school doesn’t do it, who will? I think we have to demonstrate that it’s possible in order for others to learn from what it is that we’re trying to do.

"That’s why I keep pushing the envelope, even though I sometimes feel, Oh my gosh, where is this going?” he laughs.

The Rex Foundation first gave Tule Elk a grant in 1994, through the Trust for Public Land, to help with the transformation from asphalt to garden. In 2006, Tule Elk received another Rex grant to help fund the ExploStation, an upcoming project demonstrating alternative energy — solar and water power — in a way that’s engaging to the kids. "Thank God for people like Rex, and for people who contribute to things like Rex, who make this possible," says Hurault.

On my Friday-afternoon visit, I learned more about Tule Elk from Broussard, Hurault and garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn.

Rex Foundation: Why is early childhood development so important?

Rita Hurault: It’s critical to all learning that comes afterwards. It’s the foundation. The child is developing at a very rapid clip in the early years; they’re getting their sense of self, they’re getting their sense of community, they’re getting their first real understanding of the broader world around them. So this is when it’s critical that they are given the tools for developing their feelings about the world, about learning and accessing knowledge, that will carry them through their whole lives.

If you build a strong foundation in the early years, where children feel that they are able learners, and that they are worthy of asking questions, if they feel connected to each other and the planet — those are things that will enable them to thrive in their schools and communities.

Rex: What sets the Tule Elk Park program apart from its more typical counterparts?

Alan Broussard: At the core of the program is the importance of relationship. We truly believe philosophically that in order to help a child learn and succeed, and help a child love to learn, we need to have a very strong relationship with each and every individual child, as well as his or her family. That’s critical. That’s one foundation piece.

Garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn working in the garden.

Another foundation piece is that we strongly believe that relevance is important in their education, and that as the Reggio Emilia philosophy (see sidebar: One Mile Deep, One Inch Wide) says, we have to pay attention to what children are paying attention to. And that if we do that, if we’re good observers of children’s behavior and their interests, then we can capitalize on what’s relevant to them. So we use a project approach; it’s an inquiry-based method based on a framework where we support children to learn about the things that they’re interested in, and to go in depth.

That is a very big contrast to the old-school rote learning method, and a very large contrast to what exists in public education today, because we’re in quite a conservative environment that’s very skills-based. There’s not a lot of thought being given to supporting children’s critical thinking skills, or analytical skills, or social-emotional skills, the kind of things I think the Fortune 500 companies are actually looking for.

The way we want kids to learn is to go one mile deep and one inch wide. Traditional education is one mile wide and one inch deep. We really want to support kids to peel those layers back, and to support them to ask the questions. It’s all about asking the right questions, because that’s what’s going to support their growth.

The third piece would be rigor: because it’s inquiry-based, there’s rigor both on the teacher and the student end, because the teacher has to be a reciprocal learner. The teacher can’t sit back and have a canned curriculum and say "Today we’re going to learn about the color red." It’s all got to be in context, and it’s got to be related to what the study is at the moment. It may require the teacher to go online; it may require the teacher to call a professional or an expert or to go to the library. Sometimes the kids want to explore something that we don’t always know a lot about."

Totem pole sculptures depicting native animals, including the Tule Elk (center).

Rex: How do you decide what to study?

Hurault: Everything comes from observing the children and seeing what it is they’re interested in. We’ve all gotten very good at having our ears to the ground and seeing "Well, what is it they’re following now? Could this be a study?"

For example, at the beginning of the summer we started to notice lots of ladybugs in the alder trees, and the kids kept coming up to Ayesha and me saying "Ladybugs, ladybugs! Look, look!" and we knew right away that OK, we’re going to study ladybugs this summer. It was right there in the children’s hands.

Rex: How long do you stick with a particular subject?

Hurault: As long as it takes. A typical project will have sustained interest over a longer period of time, but sometimes there are projects that just happen and last a couple of days. The ladybug project ended when the ladybug cycle turned and there were fewer ladybugs in the trees.

I had one incident several years ago where we were coming in for group time, and much to everybody’s surprise there was a worker trying to fix the windows. And instead of sitting facing me, they sat down facing the guy working on the windows and started peppering him with questions — because they are self-assured enough to ask questions. They are used to feeling that they have a right to ask questions and to have them answered seriously.

The man was wonderful; he stopped in his work and turned around, and I said, “Well, we have some interest here in what you’re doing; do you have time to talk to us?” He answered our questions and showed us his tools, and for the next two or three days it was essentially a mini-project on tools and window-fixing. The children would go into the block area and build things. It was great, just a spontaneous little tiny project. The kids just see themselves as investigators, and worthy of saying, “I want to know something about those windows. Will you tell me, please?”

Waiting for play time.

Rex: And you encourage this, instead of saying, That’s not on the lesson plan.

Broussard: Exactly. “We’re not on Chapter 3 today...”

Ayesha Ercelawn: Our day is like that. It’s questions. Nonstop, constantly, because they know they can ask.

Rex: So much of conventional education is about squelching you and keeping you in line and making you conform.

Broussard: And asking you a question and demanding that you know the answer. It’s very didactic, and not at all about group consciousness, higher-level thinking. We see kids creating an environment where they can learn by asking questions, versus kids who are still about waiting for the question and making sure they have the answer.

Hurault: I see it a lot with my kindergarteners and 1st graders. They seem to have it compartmentalized: “This homework page is where I want to be sure to get it right, but here, questions are good.”

Ercelawn: The time we were surveying bugs, we left it open to them, how they decided to record what they found, as opposed to saying, This is the structure in which you’re going to record and do it. You get these amazing interpretations — this kid is doing charts, and this kid is doing tally marks, and some kids are doing drawings and some kids are doing labels. It is so much more interesting, even for us to see, and they’ve got the chance to do it the way they want, the way it works for them.

Hurault: Which gives us the information about how that particular child’s brain works, how they access knowledge. It gives us more knowledge to reach them in places where maybe they’re struggling; you can go back and see, where this child chose to make circles and dashes instead of writing a number, that maybe they need more work over here, or perhaps that child is a visual learner. The more you let them express themselves in the way that’s comfortable for them, the more you understand about that child. This teaching is just a big circle.

Cape gooseberry bush in the Tule Elk Park garden.

Ercelawn And since it’s documentation and we often put it up, the kids get to see how each other chose to do it, and learn from each other. And they say, Oh, I could have circled each one. I could have done a key for it. And it’s all about roly-polies and worms, so it’s interesting! (laughs)

The new 3-year-olds are learning from the 4-year-olds and the 5-year-olds. Everybody’s teaching each other about what’s OK to do in the garden and what’s not. There’s a whole mentality here of taking care of nature; all the staff signs onto it. It would not be doable if it was just me saying it, but it’s coming from everybody.

You hear the kids now, telling each other “Hey, that’s nature. Don’t step on that ant; don’t pull all those leaves off that plant, you’re breaking that plant.” So they’re watching each other almost more than we’re watching them, which is really nice.

The kids are always showing each other things. For example, a kid may be really excited to learn about spearmint. Even if I show it to just a small group, I know word will spread during recess the next day; I know that kid can come back to the garden, and she’ll drag her friends along to share the spearmint with them. I spend a lot of time just standing around watching and listening to what they’re talking about, so I know what they’re excited about. For a year they were coming and eating spearmint — which I’m growing to make tea with, but a few of them have discovered they like chewing on the leaves.

Broussard: That whole reverence for living things — the kids come to me very, very carefully with something they’ve found, a caterpillar, a snail, and they’re very protective. They always know, because they learn from Ayesha and the staff, that it has to go back to its home. It has to return to where it was.

Another perspective on the life cycle of the ladybug,
and the bird hoping for a ladybug feast.

Ercelawn Occasionally we’ll get a new kid who’ll start here in the middle of the year, a 1st or 2nd grader, and this is their first experience of something like this. That’s when we can all tell ourselves that we’re doing something really good here, because that kid’s knowledge and empathy levels are completely different.

Our kids aren’t scared of bugs and are careful around them, and then we get a new kid in whose immediate reaction is stomp or scream. So we spend a bit of extra time with them, getting them up to speed, and they pretty much get it from the other kids really fast.

Broussard: It’s a good kind of assessment tool, understanding the depth of the appreciation, the awareness, that our kids develop, versus someone who comes in cold and starts from scratch. The beauty now, after 10 years, is to see kids who sometimes have the ability to be here from 3 all the way up until they’re 9 or 10; the body of knowledge that they just sort of naturally walk around with is quite amazing.

Ercelawn I know it’s coming up in the kids’ academic studies, but it’s not a piece of information Tule Elk park kids have just memorized. They have internalized how nature works, and they know it because they’ve watched it happen so many times — for example, that if they plant that seed it’ll probably grow. They complete that life cycle in front of me. They’ll collect a seed and say, ’Can we plant it now? And even if it’s not the season I’ll say ’YES!’ — because they made that connection right there.

Rex: According to your Web site, you have a diverse student body that speaks dozens of languages at home. What impact does that have on the learning process?

Hurault: It’s a very lively environment! The children who need to learn English pick it up very quickly, not only because they do at that age, but also because we’re child-driven, and child-interest-driven, and their interests are so compelling they tend to access the language quickly in order to get at what they want to know.

I think it’s one of the strengths of this arts-based, Reggio-based curriculum, because you get this bunch of children in the yard, and everybody is excited about the ladybugs, and everybody’s talking about the ladybugs, and the children are showing each other the ladybugs, and the word “Ladybug” is written on the wall. The children learn from the teacher, they learn from each other; and they generally pick up language very quickly.

Rex: Let’s face it, mainstream education is not very much like this. How do these kids adjust once they’re in “regular” school?

Hurault: I get down about what’s happening overall in American society. I get down very specifically about what’s happening to education for our children and how they’re being pressured; the focus seems to be about beating each other out from the get-go. You’ve got to compete to get into the right nursery school, because if you don’t get into the right nursery school you’re not going to get into Stanford, and if you don’t get into Stanford your life is over because you won’t be able to have five cars. The whole thing gets so crazy.

There is a quote of Gandhi’s: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” I feel that the early years are our chance. This is the time we have to save the soul (laughs), you know? This is when we can influence them, and the future, the most.

By giving them the foundation we’re giving them, by having this program, by children having a year or two of this experience — I can’t help but believe it changes them forever. That there’s some critical positive little kernel that’s placed in there. No matter what else happens in the rest of their lives, they’ve had this little bright shining moment where things really mattered.

We have children here whose parents work at the various embassies. We have a Russian child in our class right now, and the family’s going back in November. I asked his dad what school is like there, and he said they do not have the attention to the individual the way we do here. I could see he was feeling really torn about having to leave, because his child has been here for two or three years now, and he’s going to go from this environment to a very, very different one.

I worry for him. But I am also hopeful that this experience that he’s had here is something he will always have to draw on, and always remember that there are adults in the world who will listen to you, and hear you in your particular concerns, and help you follow your particular interests — and that those things are worthy.

Oak tree in the Tule Elk Park garden

So you know, every tiny spark you put out there in the world, every tiny seed you plant — you just keep planting those seeds and hoping they come out the right way. We nurture them all we can, but at some point, off they go. You do what you can do.

The kids in my class going to school are transforming their worlds. Right now one of our feeder schools is digging up part of their asphalt to create a garden. It happened because the parents are aware of this environment and what is happening here, and the teachers there became interested in what is possible. There’s a growing movement to have this kind of environment for urban children. The sidewalk is sort of cracking, and the grass is coming through here and there.

“Sometimes I think it’s a little nutty to do this big thing with one little school. And then I think, if one little school doesn’t do it, who will? I think we have to demonstrate that it’s possible in order for others to learn from what it is that we’re trying to do.” – Alan Broussard

One Mile Deep
One Inch Wide

“The way we want kids to learn is to go one mile deep and one inch wide. Traditional education is one mile wide and one inch deep. We really want to support kids to peel those layers back, and to support them to ask the questions. It’s all about asking the right questions, because that’s what’s going to support their growth.”
Alan Broussard

Impromptu study of gravity.

Tule Elk Park’s educational philosophy is derived from the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, which emphasize community involvement, continuous learning by teachers and students, and, above all, a course of study driven by what interests the children at the time.

Whatever the chosen subject — which, at Tule Elk, has included interests as varied as alternative energy, paper, tea, and ladybugs — it becomes the context in which kids acquire knowledge and develop skills.

Rita Hurault with her class's
self-portraits and ladybug art.

So, for example, for Rita Hurault’s kindergarteners and 1st graders, ladybugs became the gateway to learning about words and language (from the word "ladybug" on), numbers (counting ladybugs and recording the results), and science (observing the life cycle and day-to-day behavior of ladybugs, and how they fit into the surrounding natural environment).

Observational drawing of ladybugs,
their life cycle, and predators.

Art is integral to the entire process, as the kids observe the ladybugs going about their lives and record what they’ve seen. The art they create not only shows what they’ve learned, but allows them to share knowledge with each other, to appreciate different styles of perception and expression. And, working with the art instructor, the children helped create ceramic tile murals recording what they’ve learned about a particular subject, leaving a permanent legacy of their learning for those who come after them at Tule Elk.

Rita Hurault greets her students as
they arrive for their after-school
program at Tule Elk.

“The kids are always showing each other things. For example, a kid may be really excited to learn about spearmint. Even if I show it to just a small group, I know word will spread during recess the next day; I know that kid can come back to the garden, and she’ll drag her friends along to share the spearmint with them.” – Tule Elk garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn

Digging in the dirt.

Rex Board Perspective

Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:

When I visited Tule Elk, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the outdoor area, with all the different spaces for the children to play, engage in learning and demonstrate their creativity.

Then I talked with Alan and Rita about the program. Having taught 3rd– 4th and 5th– 6th grades back in 1970 and 1971, I knew that Tule Elk was providing a special gift to not only to the students and their families, but also to the teachers and other staff connected with the school.

I have a deep personal conviction that nourishing the minds and spirit of our children is one of the most important responsibilities we all have to ensure the well-being and richness of our communities.

To encourage children to observe the world around them, to appreciate and think about the interconnections of all things, and be enthusiastic about questioning and learning as much as possible, is a tremendous boost to promoting their healthy development, and, ultimately the health and vibrancy of our culture as a whole.

Teacher Rita Hurault: “If you build a strong foundation in the early years, where children feel that they are able learners, and that they are worthy of asking questions, if they feel connected to each other and the planet — those are things that will enable them to thrive in their schools and communities.”

Rita Hurault: “The children who need to learn English pick it up very quickly, not only because they do at that age, but also because we’re child-driven, and child-interest-driven, and their interests are so compelling they tend to access the language quickly in order to get at what they want to know.

Preparing to gather dirt, leaves and rocks.

Rita Hurault: “There is a quote of Gandhi’s: 'Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.' I feel that the early years are our chance. This is the time we have to save the soul (laughs), you know? This is when we can influence them, and the future, the most.“

Suggestions for Further Reading by Tule Elk

Reggio Emilia
Official Web site

"The Best Kept Secret This Side of Italy," by Gary Stager
District Administration Magazine

Reggio Emilia Book List

Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach, Lilian G. Katz, Sylvia C. Chard

All Kinds of Minds, Melvin D. Levine

A Mind at a Time, Mel Levine

Photos by Mary Eisenhart

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Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity

of Hope and Opportunity

By David Large

“You are not a human being in search of spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Generation Y – Everyone wants them when they have money to spend. It’s all about “market share.” But what about the ones who aren’t even in “the market”? They’re the subset that no one wants to talk about – the ones who are homeless, or high school dropouts, or juvenile hall parolees, or “aged out” foster kids, or runaways. They are not going to college. They do not have jobs.

And these young adults are “off the grid” – they are not being counted in the Census or by any single Marin County agency. They don’t have cell phones. They don’t have a mailing address. They don’t have email. They don’t have driver’s licenses or cars. They are sleeping on friends’ couches, camped out in the hill above Boyd Park, sleeping in parked cars and who knows where else, doing everything they can to hide from our view and help Marin keep them a secret.

But you’ve probably seen a few of them – hanging outside of Starbucks on Fourth Street in San Rafael, or napping in the grass across the street; gathered on the Promenade in Fairfax, or on the benches of just about any park in Marin. You’ve probably dismissed them as drug addicts and kept your distance. But few of them are drug addicts, they’re just homeless.

For a lot of different reasons, these young adults don’t have family support or adult guidance. No one is encouraging them to go to college. No one is trying to get them off the streets. No one is trying to keep them out of prison. No one is helping them get a job. No one is helping them learn the life skills they need to survive. No one is listening to them.

Actually, that’s not quite true – the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity Project (AHO) is trying. But we need your help.

— Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity

James Hayes, Molly Kron and Zara Babitzke spread the word at a community event sponsored by software company Autodesk.

A Rex beneficiary this year, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity is an innovative, all-volunteer program that provides support to homeless young adults (ages 18 to 25) in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco.

Since incorporating in January 2005, AHO has produced four groundbreaking community forums that brought together business and political leaders, individuals, parents, youth, and various organizations to focus on the growing issue of homelessness among youth in the county. Through these forums, AHO has recruited 13 “Parent Partners” who are willing to act as host families for homeless youth.

The people AHO seeks to help include young people without families, or whose family ties have been severed, military veterans without family support, and teenagers in the child services system — mental health, social services, special education, juvenile services and residential placement as well as foster care — who are about to exit the system and face living independently, often with few coping skills and little knowledge of such basics as how to apply for a job. AHO’s founder and Executive Director, Zara Babitzke, Molly Kron, AHO’s Youth Program Advisor, and James Hayes, the Youth Outreach Advisor, all have had personal experience with living as a teenager adrift in the world, and this helps them relate to homeless young people, who are often disillusioned by and distrustful of institutionalized efforts to help them.

AHO is on the forefront of grassroots efforts to deal with homelessness. Currently it receives no local, state or federal funding; instead, AHO has reached out to individuals, business and the larger community to provide the funding for the “hand up” and safety net of stable housing, guidance and community connections it provides to youth in need.

Recently Rex talked with Zara Babitzke about her unique program.

AHO founder Zara Babitzke with Youth Outreach Advisor James Hayes

Rex Foundation: Tell us more about the “Parent Partners.” We understand that the young people live in the sponsoring families’ homes for as long as six months, and that you have placed young people with four families so far. How did you find them, and what has their experience been with the program?

Zara Babitzke, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity: Through our forums, we have recruited 13 Parent Partners who are willing to act as host families for a homeless youth.

In our first year, we have had 85 referrals and piloted a program with four youth who were previously homeless. Four host families provided stable housing for these young adults.

Host families commit to housing one young adult for up to six months and to providing the crucial first step toward the stability necessary to begin to build a healthy and meaningful life. While matched with a host family, the young person is also matched with a life coach, who helps them begin their journey of envisioning, planning and actualizing a new lifestyle and future of hope.

The life coaches meet one on one with youth for four to six hours weekly, helping them develop their individualized transition plan with guidance in identifying, accessing and navigating the barriers to resources that match their educational, job and life goals.

Youth, host families and life coaches are matched according to lifestyle, interests, personality traits, and other characteristics that are important for the best match.

All four youth who were in the AHO pilot program are currently living in apartments with peers, with the support of a life coach and peer mentor. They have jobs, and are working toward their education goals. A unique aspect of our program is that these youth are now themselves peer mentors to others who are currently homeless.

James Hayes and Brian Latady

Rex: You seem to have profound faith in the power of every young person’s inner spirit, regardless of how much they have been beaten down by circumstances and “the system.” Where does that come from?

AHO: Growing up, I was essentially one of these youth myself. Although I knew my parents, they did not have the capacity to guide me, provide emotional support, and acknowledge me as a unique and worthwhile person. My father’s alcoholism and abuse, and my mother’s abandonment and neglect, left me confused, afraid, vulnerable and deeply disconnected from my inner essence and spirit. I longed for someone who could really “see” me and believe in me, someone who would inspire me, and a place where I could belong and feel safe.

What I was searching for in those critical adolescent years is, I believe, a basic human need. With the Baby Boom generation approaching their 60s and 70s, in less than a decade the current generation of business, government, and organizational leaders will be retired. We need to nurture the strengths and gifts of today’s youth to become the leaders of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is important that we value youth’s voice, and support and inspire them to become the leaders of the future.

Another contributing factor to my belief in the power of the spirit was a family tragedy involving my younger sister. My sister, a single mom with two children, had brain surgery at age 32 that left her without her physical, verbal and other communication functions. I became the conservator, and the sole support of my niece and nephew. After six weeks in intensive care, professional evaluations by a team of doctors and therapists were completed, with the prognosis that there was “no hope” for her and she would “never be a mother.”

The medical professionals decided that there was no further point in providing any therapy and the other supports she needed because she would never speak, walk, write, read or be able to have a meaningful life. I realized at that moment that without an advocate or family support, my sister would have been discarded by the system. None of those professionals knew what I knew about my sister — her strong and powerful spirit. I knew my sister would prevail if she received the necessary services and therapies she needed. It was my job to advocate for the support she needed at this critical time when she was unable to do this for herself. The result is, after years of care she has defied all the odds. Today she has a normal, healthy life and is giving back to the community by supporting others who are facing their own life crises. Her basic communication skills have returned. She exercises, walks daily and is an inspiration to all who meet her.

This tragedy with my sister was my initiation into “the system” of social services. Just as I realized that my sister, without family, or a caring advocate, would have been discarded by “the system,” I see the same thing happening with our young adults today. Youth who have no voice are vulnerable; they have no political power, and with no caring adult to believe in them, are being discounted and discarded by society.

I know from my own experiences, and from what might have happened to my sister, that the human spirit is the strongest force in determining whether someone will beat the odds. It is the human spirit in all of us that can make miracles happen.

Zara Babitzke and Molly Kron

Rex: A unique aspect of your program is that your staff have all had personal experience with life as a teen set adrift. How did you find these people, and what futures do they see for themselves?

AHO: I believe that AHO’s mission and message are universal. They touch the hearts of many people who have felt invisible, unheard, discounted, abandoned or abused in their own lives, individuals who are just waiting for the opportunity to stop that from happening to anyone else. They are looking for a way to give back and make a difference. Through community forums and intensive outreach throughout the County, individuals who have had similar or difficult childhoods are moved to step in and help AHO leave a different legacy for our youth in the future.

Rex: Marin County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state, if not the country. How do you reach people who believe that “we don’t have a homeless problem here”?

AHO: It’s truly been our biggest challenge, but we are definitely making inroads into that mindset in Marin.

To illustrate the challenge, the County created a visionary team of nonprofits and individuals to design the County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. AHO was not included on that committee, and yet, there were no organizations advocating for the largest growing homeless population — young adults ages 14 to 25, who represent 40% of the growing homeless population, according to the 2000 Census. AHO is the only organization I know of whose sole mission is preventing the growing population of homeless among at-risk youth.

I tenaciously lobbied to have AHO included on that committee; we were eventually included, but it was difficult.

So you see, we are educating the entire community about this issue — one day, one speaking engagement, one news article, one committee meeting at a time. AHO youth and myself have met one or more times with the political leaders in the County — Director of Health and Human Services, Marin Community Foundation, all of the Board of Supervisors, the Director of Marin County Office of Education, Chambers of Commerce, Rotaries, and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. In addition to our four community forums, we did a Comcast cable interview, and there have been 10 feature articles in local papers, including Pacific Sun, Marin Independent-Journal, North Bay Business Journal, NewsMarin, Marin Magazine, Mill Valley Herald, and Southern Marin Business Expo.

Zara Babitzke and James Evans with Comcast host Terri Hardesty;
taking the message to community TV.

Rex: You’ve been in operation for just one year, but you have already garnered all that publicity. How have you managed this?

AHO: With commitment, dedication, persistence and tenacity and a true belief in the spirit, wisdom and capacity of today’s youth. I feel I have been led to educate and bring light to this issue.

As the founder of AHO, I believe that all young adults, regardless of their histories, have the compassion, wisdom and soul to become responsible future leaders if they have the hand up and safety net they need through the critical transition from adolescence to adulthood. However, without a safety net at this important juncture in their lives, they will not be able to actualize their potential.

Also, I believe that my entire life experiences (personal, educational and business) have led me to this mission with youth. This includes my own family experiences, my direct experience in marketing, public relations, and building enduring individual and community relationships.

Rex: Your budget is very modest. How do you manage to do so much with so little?

AHO: AHO has been an all-volunteer effort (33 volunteers in all, including myself) since its inception last year. Our successes to date have been driven by the 24/7 intense commitment, dedication, passion, and heart-and-soul belief of those 33 volunteers that the future of our culture depends on harnessing, supporting and nurturing the gifts and strengths of our youth.

In spite of this commitment, however, we are at a critical crossroad, and will need to generate more funding to move to the next level of our Host Family, Life Coach and Peer Mentor programs.

Austin Willacy's Youth A Capella Group Til' Dawn performs at AHO fundraiser.

Rex: What would you like the readers of this piece to learn about the homeless youth problem, not only in Marin County, but also nationally, that they may not have appreciated before?

AHO: This issue is not going away on its own. The problem has been building over the last 10 years, and has not been adequately addressed.

The transition to adulthood during the past 40 years has become more protracted and difficult for most youth, who continue to depend on their parents for financial help, health insurance, or a place to live between jobs, well into their 20s. Yet, not all parents have the resources to offer these supports, and still others face even greater demands because their children have physical, mental, or behavioral problems.

More striking, some youth have no families at all to fall back on. These vulnerable youth — those with mental or physical disabilities, those with pasts in the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems, those leaving special education programs, those aging out of foster care, and those young adults who are homeless — are on their own without a safety net.

Some of the challenges youth are facing today are considered in the recent book On Your Own Without a Net by Osgood et al. This is an excellent resource for those interested in learning more about this subject.

Rex Board Perspective

Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:

Jonathan Frieman called me regarding AHO. Jonathan has been a longstanding supporter of our events and very active in community issues, so the fact that he himself was so involved with AHO compelled my immediate desire to learn more about the program.

“I felt that AHO’s work was particularly important for Rex to support because AHO was helping address what is otherwise one of the most troublesome concerns in our society right now — youth falling through the cracks and becoming lost in a downward spiral.

“I went to an AHO event and met one of the young men who had been helped by AHO. He told me he was now attending the University of San Diego, an option he might not have had without AHO. Seeing this bright young person doing so well, as opposed to being lost, affirmed that we must do all we can to nurture our youth to be healthy, engaged members of the community. I am glad that the Rex Foundation is not only supporting AHO, but also bringing more attention to this critical issue that affects all of us.”

Molly Kron
Youth Program Advisor

Once homeless herself, she now helps others at AHO

“I am a recent graduate of Dominican University, and was born and raised in the urban setting of Denver, Colorado. At the age of 14 I dropped out of school and ran away from home more times than one would care to count. Eventually I found myself living on the streets and hopping from couch to couch, whenever possible, for nearly two years. During the last six months of that experience with homelessness, I become involved with an organization like AHO whose purpose it was to help mobilize homeless youth in order to remove them from their current way of life. Because of this support network, I was eventually able to reconnect with my family and became actively involved in education.

“I heard about AHO and met Zara through my professor at Dominican University in March of 2005, while completing my thesis on government policy regarding youth and child homelessness. Since then, I have both sought out guidance from Zara, and seek to assist her in the development of the Ambassadors of Hope Project, especially with the peer mentor program of AHO.

“Currently, I am facing the reality of life in transition since graduating from Dominican. I am dealing with similar uncertainties that I experienced six years ago when I was homeless. Today however, contrary to my past experiences with homelessness, I have the support, guidance and safety net that I did not have previously, and because of this, I have been able to formulate a plan to attain long-term, stable housing. I hope to help other youth at AHO on their own path to a better life.”

“The transition to adulthood during the past 40 years has become more protracted and difficult for most youth, who continue to depend on their parents for financial help, health insurance, or a place to live between jobs, well into their 20s. Yet, not all parents have the resources to offer these supports.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Brian Latady

Helped by AHO, he’s now attending college

“Born in the Orwellian 1984, I grew up in Los Altos Hills, California. My parents divorced when I was almost 10. It became completely clear that I was depressed when I was 14, about freshman year of high school. It got to the point that I wasn’t attending classes at all; I would just be at home, in bed, feeling like I was falling deeper and deeper into my despair. I battled two years with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I was sent to school counselors at first, tested, and then the private therapist visits began. We were going to doctors for the CFS, and psychiatrists and psychologists for my now mounting diagnoses (currently it’s: the ADD form of ADHD, Clinical Depression, Social Anxiety Disorder, OCD, and Bipolar Disorder, Type II).

“I went from school to school, and eventually landed in a SED program at Lynbrook High School near Saratoga, California. About a year and a half into my time there, my mother called the police and told them she was worried that I would commit suicide… Imagine my surprise when six police officers file into my house and up into my room. They seemed to think it was necessary to have me hospitalized. So I was taken to the county hospital for some observation. I was there on September 11, 2001, and then I was shipped off to Herrick, the Psych part of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, for about a month.

“From there, after just turning 17, I was sent to an all-male 'residential treatment center.' When that place closed down a year later, I went off to another 'residential treatment center,' Sunny Hills. At that point, I was 18, and when I graduated high school that was my aging out point, when my funding ended and I had no place to go next. Sunny Hills placed me back with my father (which was not a healthy situation for me, either before or after residential placement). Eventually Sunny Hills started a transitional housing program, where I met Zara, who had been hired to design and manage that program.

“With stable housing and the support and guidance of Zara, I began going to the College of Marin and figuring out how to survive on my own. Within a year in this housing, Sunny Hills closed the program and I was out on the streets again. It was at this point Zara started the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity to provide a safety net of housing and support for youth like myself who would be otherwise homeless.

“Through AHO, the care of Zara, I was given the opportunity to live with one of AHO’s host families, and begin solidifying myself as an adult in this world, with all the entailed responsibilities. With AHO’s continued support, guidance and community connections I am hoping to enter UC Berkeley in the next two years and work in the field of BioInfomatics.”

"Youth who have no voice are vulnerable; they have no political power, and with no caring adult to believe in them are being discounted and discounted and discarded by society.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Cost-Effective Help

In February 2006, Rex gave AHO a grant of $5,000 — the amount it takes to keep a young adult in the program for a year. Because of AHO’s large volunteer base and community alliances, that money goes a long way. It provides a year of healthcare, stable living, a host family, life coach mentors, money management and savings support, education, clothing, transportation, internships and jobs — and the all-important security deposit on an apartment.

Contrast that with AHO's estimate of the annual costs commonly incurred by homeless youth without a safety net: homeless shelter, $23,400; jail, $60,000 for juveniles and $26,690 for adults; psychiatric facility, $208,050. All are costs that can be avoided, AHO points out, by helping homeless youth now, before their problems reach crisis levels.

“With the Baby Boom generation approaching their 60s and 70s, in less than a decade the current generation of business, government, and organizational leaders will be retired. We need to nurture the strengths and gifts of today’s youth to become the leaders of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is important that we value youth’s voice, and support and inspire them to become the leaders of the future.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Statistics on Youth Leaving the Child Services System

Within 2-4 years of leaving the child services system (foster care, community mental health, social services, special education, juvenile services and residential placement):

35% are homeless
40% are on public assistance
50% are unemployed
25% of the males are incarcerated
50% of the girls have given birth

• National Runaway Switchboard
• Bay Area Social Services Consortium Research
• Assemblywoman Karen Bass’s Select Committee on Foster Care
• Honoring Emancipated Youth (HEY)

According to the 2000 Census, young adults ages 14 to 25 represent 40% of the growing homeless population.

“All four youth who were in the AHO pilot program are currently living in apartments with peers, with the support of a life coach. They have jobs, and are working toward their education goals. A unique aspect of our program is that these youth are now themselves peer mentors to others who are currently homeless.”
Zara Babitzke, AHO

Kids Helping Kids
Philanthropist Jonathan Frieman on AHO

By Mary Eisenhart

Marin County philanthropist and community activist Jonathan Frieman, a longtime Rex supporter, first suggested Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity as a possible Rex grantee.

Eight years ago, Frieman was putting his law degree to work at the Homeless Advocacy Project in San Francisco, and decided he needed to experience the reality of homeless life for himself. So, with a few companions, he left his money behind and lived on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

It was, he said, an eye-opening time. “Even though one’s needs are very simple, it’s still a very stressful experience,” he recalls, "not the least because of the attitude towards homelessness that society has, which is that those people are good for nothing and they should just get a job, and they’re drug addicts.”

In fact, he says, a fair number of homeless people actually do have jobs. “Those are the invisible homeless,” he says. And, as with AHO’s clients, who for various reasons aren’t on the radar of more conventional homeless services, “we don’t see them on the streets. It could be a family has been living paycheck to paycheck, and they got that one bill, a medical bill usually, that they couldn’t handle. So the father goes out on the streets; the mother and maybe one of the kids goes and stays with a friend; maybe the other kid goes with one of the grandparents. The father works until they can save enough to get another place. That’s still stressful, because everybody’s apart, they’re not in the home unit.”

One day a couple of years ago, he got a phone call from Zara Babitzke, who was in the process of launching AHO. She’d read a profile the Marin Independent-Journal had done on Frieman, and decided he was the one to help her get started. “I start nonprofits, and she was starting one. I work with kids, and she works with kids. At that point I was starting to get somewhat known in the County and had some contacts, and I just helped her out in that regard. She’s got a vision. She saw a need and went ahead to fulfill it. It’s something that I just felt needed some strong support.”

Frieman, who went on to join AHO’s advisory board, marvels at the force of Babitzke’s vision and her effectiveness in bringing together a large coalition of business, healthcare and community groups to help out — including such groups as the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Realtors, not usually associated with helping the homeless. “It’s a coup,” Frieman says. “That’s her.”

What makes AHO’s program successful, he says, is that it’s based on formerly homeless kids helping their peers. “It’s these kids helping each other, and it has to be that, necessarily so, because they’re the ones who are going to know who’s out there. It really is an invisible group. That’s one of the things that does set AHO apart: it’s these youth helping these youth. They mentor each other. It’s a group of people trying to help each other.”

"I believe that AHO’s mission and message touch the hearts of many people who have felt invisible, unheard, discounted, abandoned or abused in their own lives, individuals who are just waiting for the opportunity to stop that from happening to anyone else. Through community forums and intensive outreach throughout the County, they are moved to step in and help AHO leave a different legacy for our youth in the future.”
Zara Babitzke, AHO

TJ, Zara Babitzke, James Hayes, Molly Kron, Brian Latady

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