December 16, 2004
Helping Them Stand
A respected non-profit had been reaching out to troubled kids at a local high schoolbut lacking donations and volunteers, it's taken to slashing that outreach program
By Joshua Kors
Concord, CA — Asked to share his collage entitled “Where I See Myself in Ten Years,” 17-year-old Beau walks slowly to the front of the classroom. A skinny kid with an army green jacket and a baseball hat with a hand grenade logo on it, he looks out at his classmates with leaden eyes.
“In ten years I see myself homeless,” he says. The other students look and listen in understanding silence.
After class Beau explains. His mom died of breast cancer two days after he turned 15. He was forced to move in with his dad, a strict Jehovah's Witness who beat him with a belt. He sees himself getting out of his dad's house one day, but with his grades, he doesn't know where he can go from there.
“I wasn't trying to be dramatic about the homeless thing,” he says. “That's just where I see myself after high school.”
Welcome to the world of Andrew Victor and Jennifer Armellini, youth educators for Stand Against Domestic Violence. For years the non-profit organization has been visiting students at Olympic High School, a continuation school in Concord that is packed with kids who are struggling with physical abuse, drugs and neglect. This year Victor and Armellini were eager to reach out to Beau and his classmates, to show them that with planning and persistence they could make it out of their homes and into college.
Unfortunately, Victor and Armellini didn't get that chance. Struck this year with a shortage of both volunteers and donations, Stand was forced to slash its outreach to Olympic's students. In past years Victor and Armellini came to Olympic once a week, every Wednesday, for ten Wednesdays in a row.
This year, the third day of the program — the day Beau and his classmates presented their collages — became the final day of the year.
“It's sad, the way he doesn't see a future for himself,” says Victor, after the school bells had wrung. “I wanted to sit down and work with him. I wanted to spark a sense of self-worth in him.” Over ten weeks, says Victor, that might have happened. “With three weeks, there just wasn't enough time.”
Laying the Framework
Spend a few hours at Olympic High School, and it's easy to see why Stand's involvement is so needed. Olympic gathers troubled teens from around the county, the bulk of whom have drug or disciplinary problems. And as the students themselves explain, gathering together that many troubled kids is itself a recipe for trouble.
Before class students whisper amongst themselves about who got wasted at the last “get drunk” party — and where the next one will be. Monday is widely known as “Ditch Day.” When the students do show up for school, many spend their time in the bathroom, which is reportedly a bustling market for Adderall, a prescription amphetamine meant to treat hyperactivity but, when used off-label, can become addictive and lead to depression and insomnia, euphoria and psychotic episodes.
It's an atmosphere, Victor acknowledges, that can be the quick road to nowhere. It's why, in their time with the kids, Victor and Armellini work to break down that atmosphere and examine it with the students. They start with the rap music the students carry in their pockets, Eminem songs about “slappin' bitches” and “spankin' hoes.” Rap talks open the door to discussions on the cycle of violence, how abused people, if they're not careful, end up becoming abusers themselves.
“From there we can talk about anger and anger management. We can help them lay out a concrete plan that leads some place different — a good relationship, a good education,” says Armellini. “A lot of these kids, they've been kicked out of class, some are hungry. They don't know what a good relationship looks like because they've never been in one.”
But Victor and Armellini are laying that framework, says longtime Olympic instructor Hildegard Spritzer. In fact it's the ability of Stand's educators, she says, to move the class from talk of hip-hop to relationship and education plans that have led her to open her classroom doors to them, third and fourth period, for now the fourth year in a row.
“The Stand educators, they speak the students' language,” Spritzer says. “These students are dealing with real conflicts in their lives.” By knowing their music and their slang, she says, Victor and Armellini can penetrate and touch on those conflicts, then help guide the students toward solutions.
Spritzer breaks the tone with a laugh. Victor especially, she says, is what she calls a “born-again student,” a fresh-faced 27-year-old “impassioned to show the kids things he didn't see in high school.”
Her doors, she says, are open to him and Armellini any time.
“There have to be resources”
That openness, from both Olympic's teachers and students, makes it all the harder for Stand to cut and run. But contribution and volunteer figures are the cold, hard facts of the non-profit world, and right now, says Curt Anderson, Stand's director of development, the figures on both accounts aren't looking so good.
“The lessons our educators are teaching them, you can see the transformation in these kids right before your eyes,” Anderson says. “But to keep those lessons going, there have to be resources to do it.” And right now, he says, Stand doesn't have those kind of resources.
Stand's financial papers bear out this predicament in black and white. The non-profit is dependent on a mix of state and national grants to fuel its outreach program. In the past eight years, both sources have atrophied considerably.
In 1996 the California Department of Health was providing Stand $450,000 each fiscal year. By 1999 to 2000, that funding was slashed to $150,000. This year that total was hit again, dropped by a third to $100,000. An increase in supplementary government grants made up for some of that loss, providing an additional $4,000.
All told, though, Stand's government funding is down $346,000 from where it was just a few years ago.
At the same time, contributions from individual donors have been plunging as well. From 2001 to 2002, Stand's outreach was running on the support of $559,353 in personal contributions. By 2003 to 2004, that number was down $166,893 to $392,460.
Between the state and the community, that meant a net loss of over half a million dollars, enough to make Stand's outreach coordinators decide first to cut the support group they used to run at Olympic High and now to clip their Olympic outreach at only three weeks.
“It's particularly too bad about the Olympic High program,” says Victor, “because at Olympic, that's where those lessons are really needed. The lesson about violence and personal responsibility — if they don't get it there, they don't get it. The issue of violence follows them around. They pass it on to their kids.”
Beginning to Connect
What makes cutting the Olympic program especially hard for Victor is that even though he and Armellini are only three weeks in, the kids are starting to get him, he says, and catch on to his message.
Before class starts a few of the students catch Victor in the hall. An Asian kid with a blue winter cap pulled down over his ears stops the group, approaches Victor and begins a complicated ritual of slaps, snaps and fist-banging. Victor knows the sequence as if by instinct. He matches the kid slap for slap, snap for snap. When the snaps stop there's a pause. Victor looks at the kid and the kid back at him — before deciding to dump his cool image aside. He lunges his winter cap forward and gives Victor a firm hug.
“Good to see you,” he says.
Minutes later Victor is standing before the entire class, trying to explain that he and Armellini may not be coming back. The announcement is greeted with tangible sadness. Eyes lower. Shoulders slump.
After class, Ms. Spritzer approaches Victor.
“You have an incredible way of connecting with the students,” she says. “I do hope you come back.”
Spritzer's not the only one. When the bell rings, Beau — the student whose mother died and fears being homeless at graduation — talks about what he learned over the brief weeks of lessons … and what he's going to miss. He insists that for the most part he's still “completely lost.” And yes, like other students, he still ditches most Mondays.
But the program, he says, has solidified his resolve to stay away from the bathrooms, the heart of the Adderall drug ring. “I've also been thinking more and more about getting something stable, like a stable job,” says Beau.
When school's out Victor heads to a local Mexican restaurant. A chicken burrito in one hand, he sits with interest, learning about Beau's comments, reflecting on Ms. Spritzer's plea.
Within Stand there is talk that, given the financial and volunteer support, the non-profit will send educators to Olympic High in January or February, this time for the full ten-week course. If Stand gets the public backing and the funds to do the job, would he be up to it? Would he come back to Olympic?
Victor's eyes light up. He lowers his burrito and smirks. “In a flash,” he says proudly. “In a flash.”
Interested in helping Stand with its Olympic High School outreach?
Contact their contribution line at (925) 603-0138. To volunteer your time, call (925) 603-0175. You can also donate clothes, cars and furniture by dialing (925) 602-0575.
For more information on Stand, its mission and outreach programs, visit their website, www.standagainstdv.org.