Feature Article - April 2009
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Reaching Out

Recreation in Underserved Communities

By Stacy St. Clair

Reach Out in Your Community

When planning recreation programming for underserved communities, it's critical to understand today's kids. That means embracing technology, comprehending urban issues and possessing a willingness to step outside the norm, said Nina S. Roberts, an assistant professor with the San Francisco State University Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies.

Skateboarding is still hot in urban areas, as are basketball and soccer. Urban children also enjoy leisurely pursuits such as fishing, which they can share with a parent or adult role model.

"'There's nothing for these kids to do' is a myth that is so untrue and unfair," Roberts said. "What's really missing is mentorship and guidance."

Roberts champions youth and community centers, which serve as a safe haven in neighborhoods plagued with gang violence and drug peddling. Urban teens and tweens prefer facilities where they can just drop in, giving them both the freedom and refuge they crave.

Experts recommend creating an environment where local youth can express themselves with their music, clothing and conversations. Welcoming places will gain a reputation by word of mouth, as kids embrace what their friends think is fun.

"It needs to be cool," Roberts said. "It's important to have a place where kids feel comfortable going. It's all about stepping out of the norm and really learning what's cool in urban communities."

Music, for example, plays a huge role in the urban teen's life. Successful programs find ways to incorporate music, giving teens a place to play their music without being hassled or criticized. Urban teens—like most Americans—have become enamored with television shows such as "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent." The opportunity to spotlight their talents could draw inner-city teens to recreation and community centers in record numbers.

"The media has brought a lot of attention to youth talent," Roberts said. "These kids are thinking less about a career and more about making a buck. Recreation Centers can take advantage of that. Special events where kids can be behind a microphone could be very successful. Have the kids help plan it."

There's still value to gender-specific programs, Roberts said. Girls can enjoy programs in which peer pressure is minimized and body image does not become the predominant issue. Boys, meanwhile, can act macho and roughhouse without trying to impress girls.

In the end, each program will rely upon recreation managers to make them successful, Roberts said. Those who are willing to serve as mentors and forge relationships with their young patrons are the ones who will succeed.

"It's not all about the programming," Roberts said. "It's the leadership."