Giving teens space to be themselves

Community groups respond to youths' concerns with basketball, karaoke and more

A couple of Friday nights ago, a crowd of more than 30 teens got together at St. Albert the Great Church on Channing Avenue, some to indulge their inner "American Idol" with a little karaoke, others to watch a movie or play various forms of "tag" outside.

Across town that same night, rubber soles squeaked against gym floors at the Ross Road Palo Alto Family YMCA, where a "Teen Open Gym" night was in its first few weeks.

The prior Friday, about 150 teens turned out for a DJ dance party at the new Oshman Family Jewish Community Center. Two more dances are planned for Dec. 3 and 4.

In an effort to embrace the youth of Palo Alto, community groups this fall have launched weekly or monthly teen events. The activities are part of a concerted effort to provide youth with relaxing things to do on the weekends -- as well as new venues for them to connect with one another and with adults.

The initiative, which youth advocates hope will gain momentum, grew out of three teen forums this spring, held in the wake of five Palo Alto teens' deaths. At the forums, young people spoke of many of their concerns and desires. One was that they'd like the community to offer more events of a greater variety, planned by both teens and adults.

"Teens want places to go. That's what they're looking for," said Chris Miller, director of youth ministries for St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, which organized the Friday Night Lights movie and karaoke night.

"Bowling alleys are closing. ... The traditional venues are quickly going away," he added, referring to the planned closure of the Palo Alto Bowl.

St. Thomas Aquinas Parish is trying to play a role in providing regularly scheduled events. Friday Night Lights, which is open to all Palo Alto youth and does not include any religious teaching, will be offered one Friday a month. The next is scheduled for Dec. 17. Miller hopes other community groups will host events to cover the other weekends of each month.

"The idea is a couple of years from now there will be something every Friday or Saturday night. That's the vision," said Miller, who is also a member of the Los Gatos school board.

The Palo Alto Youth Collaborative is working to coordinate those efforts, as well as address other youth concerns. The group includes representatives from the school district, nonprofit agencies, health organizations, religious groups, businesses and the city, and meets monthly.

Earlier this month, the members heard from two different groups of youth -- the Palo Alto Youth Council and Teen Advisory Board -- who themselves are planning a teen Black and White Ball, an open-mic night with local bands and possibly an outdoor movie night in Lytton Plaza or a park.

"These ideas we're talking about are not from adults. They're from the students -- the groups that have come up with these ideas," said Linda Lenoir, nurse for the Palo Alto Unified School District and a leader of the Youth Collaborative.

That's a philosophy that many adults are championing: To care for teenagers, adults need to listen to them and follow their lead.

Noya Adler-Abramitzky, teen coordinator for the Jewish Community Center, relied on a committee of eight teens to help organize the Oct. 29 dance, which was open to all high school students in the area. The youth publicized the dance on Facebook, helped to plan and worked at the event itself.

"Things need to come from them, what they're planning, and it will be a success," Adler-Abramitzky said.

Corbin Koch, a Jordan Middle School eighth-grader who attended Friday Night Lights, agreed.

"We definitely want to have a say," said Corbin, who organizes "spirit" events at Jordan as part of a leadership class. "It's pretty much, you can never have too much of an opinion."

Two members of the Youth Council -- Gunn seniors Jesus Guillen and Noelle Jung -- said teens want to attend events that actively engage them. And, they want to be where their friends are.

Guillen enjoys activities that draw a big crowd -- more than 100 teens.

"I prefer going to large events that are filled with people than small events," he said in an e-mail, adding that it would be important to him that friends were going. Otherwise, he fills his free time with volunteering, basketball, movies and video games.

Jung likewise said she'd go to an event if her friends were attending or if people she knew were performing. She herself occasionally attends school dances and plays.

Jung said teens don't want to feel "babysat" or attend an event that's been hastily or carelessly organized.

"Teens generally want to be engaged and involved if they are spending their free time at an event," Jung said in an e-mail. Otherwise, she added, "If I could be doing the same thing at home, I would probably rather be at home."

Ultimately, the hope is to provide teens with activities and places where they feel they can be themselves and not have to fulfill a role, said Alley White, middle school youth minister for St. Thomas Aquinas and also a former career mentor at Gunn.

"A lot of the kids I was working with (as a mentor) ... they feel they have to accomplish the checklist," White said. "With Friday Night Lights, I don't want it to be a checklist thing. I want kids to come and have fun."

At the inaugural Friday Night event, she gave the teens a choice of movies to watch (they opted for "Percy Jackson & the Olympians") and activities to participate in. With a half-dozen 20something volunteers on hand, the teens could also just sit and talk about whatever was on their minds -- which some did, White said.

"There's no program, which is the beautiful part about it," she said. "This isn't for your resume; it's for your soul."

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Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 19, 2010 at 8:50 pm

This sounds wonderful.

How are these events being advertised? My own teen knew nothing about any of these functions.

It would be a good idea to have a section here on Palo Alto online for teens so that they could check in each week to see what was going on for them. Certainly some type of online overall teen website where they could access in their own way would be a good idea for publicity.

Like this comment
Posted by Thanks!!
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 20, 2010 at 6:50 am

Wow!! This sounds great!

Thank you to all who are doing this! I have a 13 year old..we'll be checking out the activities and I will be volunteering to help out!

Like this comment
Posted by Thanks!!
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 20, 2010 at 6:53 am

I just looked up "Palo Alto Youth Collaborative" to no luck on the net.

Does anyone know where I can go to see who is plannning what, when?


Like this comment
Posted by Jocelyn Dong
editor of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Nov 20, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Jocelyn Dong is a registered user.

Hi Paly Parent and Thanks!!

As efforts get off the ground, the Youth Collaborative is seeking help with publicity. I don't believe the group has a centralized website for teen events yet. However, some activities are currently posted on the city's website: Web Link

It does seem like a Facebook page (or something similar) devoted to upcoming Palo Alto teen events would be effective. Anyone who can volunteer to help or who has ideas can contact the Youth Collaborative leaders:

Linda Lenoir (school district)

Adam Howard (City of Palo Alto)

Like this comment
Posted by LivetoDance
a resident of another community
on Nov 22, 2010 at 10:55 am

Teen Open Gym
Basketball, Volleyball
Palo Alto Family YMCA
3412 Ross Road
Palo Alto, CA 94303

Friday Nights
Open to ALL Palo Alto high school students

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