Oakland Youth Aspire Offers Lessons in Life and Health

It’s Saturday afternoon at the DeFremery Recreation Center in West Oakland, and several groups of children are watching intently as Quetzal Flores, a student at UC Berkeley and a volunteer with Oakland Youth Aspire, partially fills a few plastic bottles with vinegar and then attaches a balloon filled with baking soda to the top of the plastic bottles.

Flores lets the baking soda fall into the vinegar inside the plastic bottle, creating a reaction that produces carbon dioxide, and the children watch fascinated as the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the bottle causes the balloon to inflate.

He then takes the fully inflated balloon and asks the kids, “How many of you feel like this after drinking too much soda?”

It’s a lesson designed to teach kids not only about academics, but also about healthy eating, two of the major goals of the Oakland Youth Aspire program (oaklandyouthaspire.org). Initially launched in 2008, under the name What Now America, this volunteer-based organization works to impact the lives of inner city youth by offering a free drop-in program each Saturday from noon-5pm., that regularly attracts between 20-40 children and teens.

Oakland resident Milad Yazdanpanah, who works full-time as a business analyst, founded the program six years ago with the help of a volunteer board of directors. He was hoping to fill what he saw as a void in the West Oakland area, where few youth programs are offered on weekends.

“We surveyed around 300 people at hot spots around the city, and based on the feedback we received, we decided to start a weekly-drop in youth program that promotes academics, healthy living, and helps them to master important life skills.”

“Every week, the older children are in the kitchen helping to prepare, cook, and serve lunch to the younger kids,” says Jana Hiraga, a volunteer board member. “They learn kitchen safety, leadership skills and health and wellness education in the kitchen.”

In addition, Hiraga notes that all children get a healthy snack, a hot healthy lunch and groceries, including fresh fruits and vegetables, to take home with them at the end of the program.

Hiraga, who works as a program director for the YWCA, began volunteering with Oakland Youth Aspire in 2008, and says she has been impressed by both the commitment of volunteers and the impact the program has on children.

“We’re rely 100 percent on the support and donations of volunteers,” Hiraga says. “Our program teaches kids what respect means and how to better communicate their feelings and work collaboratively with others. They make friends in our program and also find role models.”

Lelamae Harris is one of the program’s many success stories. The Oakland resident began attending the weekly program six years ago, along with her younger sisters and nieces and nephews. She says attending the weekly Oakland Youth Aspire programs transformed her.

“I was provided with an opportunity that wasn’t offered in my community,” Harris says. “I’d been going down the wrong path and had dropped out of high school, but the encouragement and support I received in Oakland Youth Aspire helped me to get my life on track.”

Today, Harris is 22 and a recent college graduate. She works full-time and just launched her own pet grooming/dog sitting business with a friend.

“I earned my high school diploma and my driver’s license, and just finished college and started my own business,” Harris says. “I’m not sure all of that would have been possible without the support of the volunteers at Oakland Youth Aspire.”

Stories like Harris’ keep Hiraga and the other volunteers coming back each weekend. Even when a fire destroyed Yazdanpanah’s Berkeley apartment several years ago, he didn’t miss a Saturday.

“I was so impressed that Milad didn’t let the fire keep him from being with the kids,” says Leann Alameda, a board member who handles communications for Oakland Youth Aspire. “I became involved with this program five years ago when I was looking for a way to give back to my community.”

An Oakland resident who works for a San Francisco non-profit, Alameda found out about Oakland Youth Aspire through her church, and was immediately impressed by both the volunteers and their vision for children.

“Our program helps kids learn the tools they need to reach their potential and to lead healthy lives,” Alameda says. “We’re putting more of an emphasis on mastering life skills such as conflict resolution and how to work together to achieve a common goal.”

Yet even life lessons are presented in a fun way to capture the interest of even the youngest children.

“For example, if we’re playing a game of Monopoly, we’re also emphasizing lessons about money management, and planning for the future,” Yazdanpanah says.

Some of the program’s greatest feedback came earlier this year, when the city of Oakland closed the DeFremery Recreation Center for a remodeling project. Since the city allows Oakland Youth Aspire to use the center at no-cost, the program took a brief hiatus, and Yazdanpanah was astounded by the response.

“Our phones were literally ringing off the hook,” he says. “Families wanted to know when we’d be offering the Saturday programs again. It’s often difficult to measure our effectiveness, but all of the calls that we received from families telling us how much we are appreciated, and were missed, really validated what we’re doing.”

To keep the program viable, Yazdanpanah and the board are always seeking volunteers who can help with activities on Saturdays, or who can make monetary donations to the program.

“We prefer monetary donations to in-kind donations because we can get more bang for our buck,” Yazdanpanah says. “It costs local residents $1 to buy a can of tuna, but we can purchase 8 cans of tuna for $1 through the local food bank. A $20 donation can feed 10 students on a Saturday afternoon.”

Hiraga and Yazdanpanah say there has been interest from other churches and organizations that would like to offer a program similar to Oakland Youth Aspire in cities across the state.

“We’re currently working on a binder that would show organizations how to recreate what we’re doing here in West Oakland,” Hiraga says. “The kids that attend our program receive positive attention, mentorship, respect and love, and unfortunately some of these kids don’t receive these qualities in other areas of their life.”

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