Ask many high school students, and summer means one thing: freedom. They have spent the past nine months answering the “What college/university/philanthropic non-profit work are you going to go into?” question, navigating expectations and turning in proofread copies of their answer every Friday. These kids aren’t looking for more attention; they’re dying for less of it.
But what about the fact that for other students, invisibility is reality? They feel unnoticed, fly under the radar, and struggle to stay out of trouble after the bell rings. With budget cuts sucking the life out of free after-school programs (Parks and Recreation’s Teen Center being among the casualties) many Santa Barbara students are daunted by the summer’s emptiness.
Peter Leyva is one man unwilling to stand by and watch. Labeled “at-risk” in his own childhood, Leyva was lucky enough to meet Frank Puchi, a suicide prevention psychologist and gang intervention specialist who showed him the path to higher education. Thirty years later, Leyva is determined to pay it forward; he and Puchi are joining forces once again, this time to brainstorm an after-school program for youth in Santa Barbara.
The program, tentatively titled Youth, Education, and Community, will offer peer counseling and activities for teenagers who are falling behind in school. Mainly, it will provide a productive alternative to street activity. As for that sticky “at risk” label—Leyva believes it packs unnecessary punch, and he’s ditching it entirely. As collaborator and Santa Barbara School District employee Ismael Huerta puts it, “These kids are so used to the negative. The focus needs to be on the positive.”
A similar sentiment runs at the Franklin Community Center, where Leyva—in addition to working for the city, and serving as board president of the Santa Barbara Youth Mariachi Group—acts as coordinator for services on the Lower Westside. Established in 1974 with funds from a federal grant, the Franklin Center aims to improve neighborhood activity through outreach services, community preservation, and morale-boosting community art projects. The Youth Art Alliance Program and accompanying mural creation are two youth-specific programs which, like Leyva’s vision, aim for the crucial window between childhood and adulthood. Even with these options, Leyva saw the need for an additional way to assist students and their families. He wasn’t alone.
Beginning last year, Leyva began meeting with other Santa Barbara forces, mainly non-profits and higher education partners, that share his objective. This group held its fourth meeting on Friday, August 20, at the Daniel Bryant Treatment Center. Over homemade sandwiches and fruit, representatives from Domestic Violence Solutions, Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, Planned Parenthood, La Casa De La Raza, School Districts, UCSB, SBCC, and more, began piecing together the details of the project’s goals.
Puchi, acting as a consultant for the state, used his experience in grant writing to steer the group back to home base: acquiring funds. “The conversation has got to revolve around money,” he told the group. “And you can’t receive money unless you’re organized.” It’s no small challenge considering that want of money is primarily responsible for the obliteration of existing programs.
Taking a step in the right direction, the group whittled their mission down to a few key elements: The project will be after school, focused on education and goal-setting, and peer-led. Christy Haynes, who has worked with Domestic Violence Solutions for 15 years, believes it is “so much more impactful” when teens talk to teens—leading her, and others, to believe that the project will be “extremely successful.”
The heart of Leyva’s mission is to form a bridge between Santa Barbara schools and higher education (as well as among other community organizations). Not only will the peer mentorship program provide a haven for kids struggling to stay out of trouble, it will also produce jobs for local college and university students. Until the effort receives funds, the job will be volunteer; fortunately this had not deterred a number of potential mentors from jumping aboard. “Pass a torch to a young one,” said Huerta, “and they carry it on.”
In the upcoming months, Leyva and his crew are seeking to give their effort—still relatively raw—to the structure that Puchi believes will land them a perpetual grant. While the city discusses the continued allocation of funds toward gang intervention (the City and Police are talking “suppression” in their terminology, not intervention or prevention, activists said), Leyva and crew are placing their bets on intervention and prevention. “You’d be surprised what you can do in six months,” Huerta asserted. “Imagine what you can do in a year.”
In the end, Leyva wants the community to understand the need for a productive, safe, after-school program: Kids are struggling, they want somewhere to go, and “no one is showing it to them.”