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Yes, A Community Organization Worth Supporting

In these times when people are falling over each other to garner City of Richmond financial support for organizations and initiatives that can mitigate violence, I want to recommend one, not for City funding, but for support from individuals and businesses. Youth Enrichment Strategies (YES) started as a way to provide inner-city children with experiences and opportunities which can ignite the imagination and contribute to self-confidence, the very experiences which are the birthright of most middle-class children. But most children of North and South Richmond, California have never seen the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, been to the zoo, a park, the circus, or, in most cases, been out of their impoverished, dangerous neighborhoods.

YES has observed that early exposure to and participation in a variety of enriching experiences contributes to the child’s belief that the future holds a place for him or her and that it is within the realm of possibility to reach it.

Positive experiences in nature and participation in cultural activities offered at summer camp counter the lure of the destructive behavior offered on their neighborhood streets. The new feelings of confidence and self-worth engendered by mastering new skills, meeting new people of all ethnicities and economic levels, and exploring new worlds are the antidotes to the prevailing message of the streets: destructive behavior is okay because there is nothing to lose. Kids learn quickly that there is a lot to lose.

Each year since 1999, YES has sent several hundred children from North and South Richmond away from the inner-city to summer camps which offer them one to two weeks of eye-opening harmony in a beautiful, natural setting while learning to swim, learning archery, and participating in hiking, boating, singing and telling stories at the campfire, learning skills and trust in a challenge course, and many more traditional camp activities.

The first difference to strike the children when they arrive at camp is the safety. “There are no gunshots, only crickets,” 8-year-old Arlene said. They can run freely among the car-free fields and trees: for a short time they can experience the limitless joy which should be the birthright of all our children.

We attended a fund-raising and awareness-raising dinner last night where we learned about YES and heard children talk about their life-changing experiences at YES camps. See the article below by Jon Carroll, or visit the YES web site at http://www.yes.org/about.html. Last year, YES sent nearly 400 children to camp. The organization’s Form 990 is at http://partners.guidestar.org/partners/cadoj/docs.jsp?npoId=100294434.

- Jon Carroll
Monday, May 1, 2006

Poverty is a place of diminished horizons. Literally, in some cases, because most of the urban poor live in flat areas, where the views aren't. (The value of views is quantifiable; ask a real estate agent.) And more often metaphorically, because people in the grip of poverty cannot see possibilities, and the famous cycle of poverty continues because the exits are not clearly marked.

A Berkeley real estate agent named Diane Mintz began working as a tutor at Coronado Elementary School in Richmond in the late '90s. She had a revelation, a phrase that she repeats over and over again -- "these kids had never seen the Golden Gate Bridge." Some of them didn't even know the Golden Gate Bridge was there to be seen.

The kids also had never been to a museum or a regional park. Their mental map of their larger community was pinched and drab. They had their own families and their own culture, but they were unaware of the world. They were unaware of nature, or the eco-system, or the concept of interdependence. They were cut off by freeway abutments and turf wars and the limited expectations that surrounded them.

So she started with field trips. She made it up as she went along. She asked for the school's help in identifying the most at-risk kids, and those were the kids she started with. In 1999, she raised enough money to send 10 kids from Coronado School on field trips; the next year, she raised enough money to send 81 kids to summer camp.

All sorts of studies have been done on the impact of summer camps on poor kids, and the conclusion seems to be: big impact. Bigger impact than you'd think. Social scientists have long been aware of something called summer loss, the way that disadvantaged kids lose academic ground compared with their wealthier counterparts during the summer months. The reading gap widens, for instance. Kids who go to summer camp do not, it appears, experience summer loss.

Plus, they have fun. Let's not discount fun as a cultural value. The kids do archery and swimming and boating. They sing around the campfire and walk in the woods. They run around and yell and act like kids. It's a very ordinary thing, unless you don't get to do it all the time, or you don't get to do it in a safe place. Then it's a pearl of great price.

Diane Mintz is a force of nature. I would not want to be standing between her and anything she thought was important to have. She just started making the program bigger. She became a 501(c)3, and her group found a name, YES, for Youth Enrichment Strategies. In 2006, 400 kids. They go to established summer camps like Camp Loma Mar and Camp Winnarainbow and the Cazadero Performing Arts Camp and Camp Jones Gulch and the CYO Summer Camp and Camp Avary for children of prisoners.

But wait, there's more. Mintz noticed that when the kids got home, their parents were uninterested in their experiences. "It was like, 'Get in the car.' " Her solution: family camp. Everybody gets to have fun. Everybody gets to look for lizards or walk in the tall grass or sing around the campfire. Plus, the adults get together by themselves and talk about issues, talk about dreams, talk about kids.

"The first one I did of these," she says, "was in Chabot Regional Park. We camped out. These are people who live in various dangerous neighborhoods; these are people who deal with peril. But it's dark in the country, and the noises are different, and people were apprehensive. I worried that I had gone too far. But at the end of the camp, everyone said it was their favorite part. Later, we found out that everyone likes walking in the dark without flashlights, too."

Two years of family camps; 800 people have participated so far. "You know, I don't know whether I'm quote unquote making a difference," she says. "I don't think I'm saving the world. I'm helping some kids in Richmond."

Perhaps you'd like to help too. YES is having a benefit banquet May 21 at the Bancroft Hotel in Berkeley. There's a silent auction, and food, and pleasant people, and dancing later. Tickets are $125 per, advance purchase only. Call (510) 527-1400. Or maybe you're busy that day. Fine. The sentimental gift of money is always welcome. Send your contributions to YES, 1577 Solano Ave., Berkeley, CA 94707. You won't be saving the world; you'll just be helping some kids in Richmond. It'll be the best thing you do all day.

In which we consider the social consequences of fun, an abstract concept not fully understood by social scientists. Kids who are having fun are not experiencing despair, and that's a thing right there.

Before the breathing air is gone, before the sun is just a bright spot in the night time, out where the rivers like to run, I stand alone, and take back jcarroll@sfchronicle.com.