It’s a hot afternoon in late August, one week before school starts. Nestor Galvan and Ben Magdaleno are hanging out with some friends in the parking lot outside an unassuming, single-story building in the Funk Zone. “From the beginning, this place changed,” Galvan remarked, gazing through one of the building’s giant storefront windows. “We painted a lot, put holes in the walls, opened it up.”
“Before, it looked all cramped and stuff,” offered Magdaleno.
The building they refer to with proprietary pride is 209 Anacapa Street, soon to be home to Youth Interactive Santa Barbara, an after-school center focused on technology, entrepreneurship, and the arts. Along with other youth and adult volunteers, Galvan and Magdaleno have spent a good portion of their summer helping remodel the structure in anticipation of the center’s late-September launch.
Youth Interactive is the brainchild of Nathalie Gensac, a French-born entrepreneur who since 2008 has opened similar centers in India, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, and Montana, with a fifth center soon to open in Papua New Guinea. Gensac was inspired by the need she saw around the world when she worked as the TV host for a travel show. “I did the world five-star,” she recalled, pulling up two dusty plastic chairs inside the still-in-process center. “Yet wherever I was, I kept seeing disparity between rich and poor. I’d go into the ghettos of Cape Town or the favelas of Brazil and just speak to the women.”
What she learned is that people wanted “a hand up, not a handout.” In 2005, she quit her TV work and devoted two years to continuing these conversations. What she heard was remarkably consistent worldwide: Women everywhere spoke about the next generation and the need for education, access to technology, and business skills. In 2008, Gensac launched Youth Interactive to address these needs, and that same year she was nominated for an Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur Award.
When friends first heard about Gensac’s plan to open a Youth Interactive center in the United States, they suggested Santa Barbara. Gensac, who knew of the city only from the 1980s soap opera, was dubious. Yet after numerous visits and meetings with community organizations, she saw things differently. “It checked every box,” Gensac said of Santa Barbara. “I needed a tight-knit community with a lot of nonprofits, a lot of students, tourism, an artistic community, and big disparity between rich and poor.” Of course, she also needed funders, and she found them — in addition to the McCune, J.S Bower, and Santa Barbara foundations, the center’s list of partners and supporters reads like a who’s who of the Santa Barbara nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Much of the program at Youth Interactive — which is free and open to students ages 6-18 — will be based around the needs and interests of the participants, Gensac explained, though some aspects are predetermined. She pointed out a countertop at the back of the space that will house the “Genie Bar” — a bank of computers — and showed me the “Think Tank” area, where partner organization Cage Free Productions will screen a continuous loop of “good news” from around town.
Among the many innovative programs on offer is the “3-D curriculum” featuring a dedicated projection room where students will wear 3-D glasses and learn in a more hands-on way — such programs have been shown to be particularly effective for students with learning disabilities and ADHD.
On the day I visited, Gensac introduced me to two of her local collaborators: Juan Pablo Herrada and Marcia Meier. Herrada is the founder of Palabra, an after-school program aimed at minimizing youth-on-youth violence in Santa Barbara. He’ll be recommending young people for the program and coordinating with school administrators and other community groups. Getting young people involved in the creation of the center, Herrada noted, gives them more buy-in when the program launches. Meier, who for years ran the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, will oversee the center’s writing program and plans to bring in well-known authors on a quarterly basis.
In addition to one-on-one tutoring and group study sessions, the center will also provide support to students who want to launch business ventures. Those who create products will get help with marketing and selling and will keep 100 percent of their profits.
It’s clear Gensac and her team like to dream big. In the coming months, they’ll get to find out how the youth of Santa Barbara respond to their visions.
Youth Interactive Santa Barbara opens in late September; the grand-opening event is October 6. To learn more, register, volunteer, or donate, stop by 209 Anacapa Street or visit youthinteractive.us.