Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 22, 2011

Start with 'assets', not 'deficits,' youth directors say

YMCA, others, build assets into programs

Several Palo Alto youth programs — including the city's Recreation Department, the Palo Alto Family YMCA and the nonprofit Youth Community Service (YCS) — for years have organized their programs around the "developmental-assets" model.

"I really appreciate the 'asset' approach rather than the 'deficit' approach," said YCS Executive Director Leif Erickson.

"Instead of focusing on what's missing and all the negative ways of looking at kids and saying, 'We're going to fix that,' this builds on strengths kids already have.

"A lot of (asset building) is doing things the people like parents, neighbors and church groups are already doing, just being more intentional about it."

Those groups let teens know they are valued as individuals and give them a role in community life, he said.

Erickson runs "service-learning" programs for students in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Redwood City and Los Altos, teaching leadership skills as well as providing opportunities to volunteer.

The Palo Alto Family YMCA adopted the assets approach in the mid-1990s, recognizing the assets as consistent with the Y's "core values of honesty, caring, respect and responsibility," said Danny Koba, senior youth and community director at the Ross Road Y.

"As youth workers, we're always looking for how to create a safe environment for kids, but when you add the framework of the assets, you realize you're really helping children become contributing members of the community — and that puts a longer goal on it," Koba said.

The assets are the model for the Y's Youth in Government program, in which local students each year figure out what needs fixing and draft their own legislation.

Students absorb assets such as "equality and social justice" through the exercise. They receive the support of adults when they present their legislative proposals to local elected officials.

Every Y staff member annually is trained and retrained in the assets, so that asset building becomes a part of every program, Koba said.

When staff members hand a child off to his or her parent at the end of a daily program, for example, the staffer is instructed to spark a conversation about something the child did that day so that the talk can be continued between parent and child.

The Developmental Assets Survey itself has been available to school districts in Santa Clara County for a decade through an organization called Project Cornerstone — but last October was the first time Palo Alto has participated.

— Chris Kenrick

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