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YouthBuild Boyle Heights Students Launch Funding Campaign

A decade ago, when programs like Donors Choose first began creating forums for public school teachers to ask for funds for things like writing utensils, art materials, stools for students to sit on, or books, it was clear the public school system was in a bit of a crisis. I don't know if it really hit home with me, though, until I started volunteering in the high schools around L.A. and saw just how few resources teachers had access to and what that meant for the kind of education they were able to give students.

The situation seems even more dire in continuation schools, which generally serve a population of at-risk youth who may already be supporting a child, are juggling jobs to help their families make ends meet, or are trying to re-establish their footing after having gotten in with the wrong crowd or in trouble with the law.

Because of the challenging circumstances most of the students come from, the stakes are even higher for them with regard to getting their high school degrees. For this reason, schools like YouthBuild (in Boyle Heights) often combine traditional coursework with leadership training, civic engagement, community service, and job skills training. They want to meet the wide range of needs and educational backgrounds of the students while preparing them to make positive contributions to their communities. The only problem is that they often have to do so with even fewer resources at their disposal.

Which is why it was not surprising to see one of YouthBuild's highly dedicated teachers, Canek Pena-Vargas, put out an appeal for funding for their silk-screening program yesterday (see video above).

Although they currently do some silk-screening on borrowed equipment, a recent trip to a local print shop inspired students to create a plan to build a permanent studio. It would be a great artistic outlet for youth, they say in their project video, and it would also help create income-generating opportunities for the students while teaching them valuable entrepreneurial skills.

At this point, you may be asking yourself why I have put this in a post, given that struggling schools are not considered a typical "livable streets" sort of issue.

I can tell you it came to mind today because of two quasi-related things.

First up, the grand opening of an affordable housing complex on Whittier Blvd. in Boyle Heights this afternoon.

Boyle Heights has gotten more than its fair share of affordable/special needs housing complexes of late. This is much to the chagrin of some of those in the community who believe that the structures are bringing low-income and homeless people from around L.A. to Boyle Heights while leaving the myriad economic or housing needs of local residents unaddressed.

Regardless of whom the housing is serving, the complexes are only beginning to make a dent in the larger housing problem facing communities like Boyle Heights.

The complex opening today, for example, will house just 59 families out of the nearly 1500 that applied.

And, it may very well be serving Boyle Heights residents.*

Because they did no advertising of the site outside of putting a banner up during construction, said Chris Ragon of the Retirement Housing Foundation, it is likely that only people living in the area or passing by the site would have known about it.

Part of the reason for the overwhelming response to the housing opportunity is that "nearly 50 percent of the homes in Boyle Heights include children, and the community has a reported family poverty level of nearly three times the state average," as the press release for the housing event so kindly reminded me this morning. And, while the median income of $33,235 is one of the lowest in the city, it is stretched even thinner by the high number of people crammed into a household.

Limited access to affordable housing, in short, is clearly a symptom of much deeper problems.

Which brings me to the second thing that made me think about education today: the recently-released draft Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles.

It purports to promote a "foundation of good health" by supporting education, workforce training, and youth employment programs, all of which are cited as key factors in helping people live longer, healthier, less stressful lives.

The overarching reasoning at work here is that more educated people can make healthier choices regarding what they put in their body, whom they associate with, whom they enter into relationships with, and how they think about their future.

But, it's also not just about thinking about making good choices.

A better-educated population will also have more economic opportunities, and (hopefully) income, at their disposal that will afford them the breathing space and economic wherewithal to both make those healthier choices and sustain them over the long term.

Addressing the components of that "foundation" of health, then, should help diminish reliance on other services like affordable housing. Not overnight, of course, but onward down the road.

Which brings me back to Pena-Vargas' class.

I first met them last summer, when the students were putting together a mobile mural to beautify Hollenbeck Park. The project was an outgrowth of an informal weekly dance party that some of the students had begun at the park two years prior. The students wanted to make a permanent contribution to the park stage, discouraging vandalism and helping create a safe and creative space for youth to gather.

One student in particular credited the leadership experience he gained from organizing the parties and participating in the mural project as not only helping him stay out of trouble, but also allowing him to see that he had a talent that he could put to use in a positive way.

When the police picked him up off the street one morning to take him to breakfast instead of to jail, he told me, that's when he knew people could see he was changing for the better.

There are lots of youth like him in Boyle Heights -- they very much want to make positive contributions to their community but don't always know how to get from A to B. Schools like YouthBuild are so important for that very reason -- they give the kids that have been messing up that second or third chance they need to make things right.

Hopefully, going forward, the folks from a Plan for a Healthy L.A. will look for innovative ways to help shore up the ability of these kinds of schools to serve marginalized youth. In the meanwhile, alternative funding campaigns may have to suffice.

For more on the funding campaign for YouthBuild's silk screening program, click here. If you'd like to learn more about the Plan for a Healthy L.A., you might want to attend one of their upcoming public meetings.

*Ragon was unable to tell me which parts of L.A. the residents at the Whittier site had come from because they apparently don't keep data on that.

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