Buchanan YMCA's Safe Haven

New Fillmore, February 2004

Buchanan YMCA Provides Safe Haven
For After-School Students

By Max Millard

For the past 68 years, residents of Japantown and the greater Fillmore District have benefited from the presence of a long, white two-story building at 1520 Buchanan Street next to Geary Boulevard, across from the pagoda. Originally called the Japanese YMCA, and now the Buchanan YMCA, it has a long history of providing after-school programs for youths.

Two years ago the program had just one staff member, Adrienne Jackson, and its focus was on computers. But last July, thanks to a grant from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, the program was greatly expanded. It changed its name from the Learning Center to the Western Addition Safe Haven program. Jackson, still the director, is now assisted by a learning specialist, a staff tutor, volunteer tutors, and instructors in art, science, basketball, health and fitness, and cooking.

The Safe Haven program runs Monday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m., is free, and is open to all San Franciscans age 10 to 18. It draws mainly students from middle school, more boys than girls, and more African Americans than any other ethnic group. Its purpose, says Jackson, is "so that they'll have a safe place to hang out or get homework assistance, or participate in other things that they wouldn't be able to at school. Our goal in particular is to help raise grades and to provide an enrichment program for the kids."

The students arrive directly after school and get a little free time to unwind before starting their homework. They might log onto a computer, listen to music or just relax. At 4 p.m. the books come out, and the youths get individual help from peer tutors from high school.

After homework time, the youths have their choice of several recreational activities. "I encourage them to experience new things, but they're never forced. The reason is that I'd rather them be in YMCA where they're going to be safe, and not out on the street," says Jackson.

Perhaps the most challenging activity is a physical education class taught twice a week by the Buchanan Y's fitness director, Bruce Van.

A former high school and college athlete, with a shaved head and a graying goatee, Van remains as sleek and wiry as a greyhound. Talking softly in his slow, precise manner, he twirls his gold-rimmed glasses while keeping one eye on the exercise room adjacent to his small office.

To start each class, Van takes the youths to the Y's new cardiovascular center, which opened in November. It is filled with the latest models of treadmills and stationery bicycles that help boost endurance by improving the heart rate and blood flow. "We have six different cardio machines," he notes. "I'll have them do five minutes on each machine." Then he takes the youths to another room equipped with resistance machines for building strength, and guides them through some carefully supervised routines. "I have taught some of them really good form on free weights," he says. "When they're very young, we do more calisthenics and timed obstacle courses. You do get a sense of competition."

A typical class attracts five to seven students, including several girls. Besides the direct benefit of the exercise, says Van, "I think they're learning responsibility and accountability. They learn to take directions so far as how to properly use the pieces of equipment. They learn proper gym attire sweatshirts, shorts, T-shirts, no boots or jeans with rivets. It took me a while to get that implemented, but now they seem to have gotten the image. A lot of them keep them in their backpacks or wear them under their street clothes."

Another lesson is that "they learn to respect the gym etiquette how to share with the adult members of this facility and take turns with the machines. ... They get a sense of empowerment. And they're learning good health habits. You've been reading in the newspapers lately about how American teenagers are out of shape."

A study reported by Associated Press in January showed that almost one-sixth of American 15-year-olds were obese, and that nearly one-third of U.S. youngsters eat fast food on any given day. U.S. teens are more likely than those in other countries to eat snacks and sugary sodas, and are more likely to be driven to school and other activities, which contributes to a more sedentary lifestyle.

To help educate the youths about healthy eating, Safe Haven offers a cooking class in his kitchen each Wednesday from 4:30 to 6:15 p.m. Some of the results are served for snacks the next day.

The program's facilities are spacious and comfortable. It has exclusive use of a big room in the basement furnished with a sofa, rug, study table, and many computers. On the second floor is an even bigger room, which is used whenever needed.

"We serve predominantly youth from the Western Addition neighborhood," says Alexander Vaughan, the branch's associate executive director, in a tour of the building. "We work with the teachers of the students to get their report cards and understand what their range is, to be able to measure their progress. The program is more focused on increasing the students' ability to achieve in school in provide additional activities that they might not experience in other parts of their lives."

Some of the youths come from other parts of the city because they have been participants in the Buchanan YMCA since they were small and their parents trust the Y.

Bruce Van thinks that the program's location makes it more appealing to some youths. "When it's at the school that they're attending, they look at it as just another class. But when it's off-site and they have to travel to get here, they tend to want to participate in the activities a little more."

A YMCA staffer since 1995, he started the first after-school program at Presidio Middle School, and formerly worked as an athletic director for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which involved "very at-risk kids." Skilled in conflict resolution, he is an expert in sports-specific body sculpting. He especially likes working with people who need the most assistance, whether youths or seniors.

The premise behind Safe Haven is that, especially for kids who are at risk academically or behaviorially, there's not much to do after school except hang around the street or come home to an empty apartment. Safe Haven is a citywide program. It has sites in the Bayview and Ingleside districts, and another one that Jackson supervises in the Hayes Valley Recreation Center at Hayes and Buchanan. It shares its resources with the Buchanan Y, and youths can go to either location. Jackson estimates that her two programs attract 40 to 50 kids per day.

At 30, she is a nine-year veteran of the Y, but young enough so that she can identify with many of the problems that the youths face. "Sometimes I counsel kids in my office," she says. "If they're having a bad day, they know that they can come to me and talk to me, and they feel comfortable in doing that. I just remember my experience, and so I try to guide them, and help them make the right choice."

She would like parents to come in more often to meet with the staff, but admits that "parent participation is very low." Instead, she has organized a five-member youth council of kids in middle and high school. "It's basically an opportunity for them to get some leadership skills and life skills, and they get a stipend for participating," she says. "We have special meetings where we plan activities and do some fund-raising."

On two Fridays in January the youth council held a pancake breakfast for the public, to raise money for field trips. Their next event might be a lunch. Among the places they've gone since last summer are Great America, Raging Waters, the Exploratorium, and some college campuses. They will visit the Museum of Modern Art in February.

Jackson is optimistic that the program will get more funding from the mayor's office so that it can continue after July. It's a year-round program, and will go straight into its summer schedule when the school year ends on June 9.

The Safe Haven program still has openings. To sign up, youths may go directly to the Buchanan YMCA or call Adrienne Jackson at 415-931-9622.