A sudden-yet-familiar terror overtook Regina Jackson, executive director of the East Oakland Youth Development Center. The moment she heard the news—that Tyrrell Blackshire had been shot—she immediately began jumping and crying, her screams echoing throughout the center.
Blackshire, then 17, was robbed and shot on 90th Avenue and International Boulevard, near his grandmother’s home, just blocks from the center. He was only in the area because he returned early from the organization’s 2006 Big City Mountaineers trip, an eight-day wilderness adventure in the Yosemite Valley. It was the one trip Jackson missed, so she couldn’t encourage Blackshire to finish it. Blackshire, suffering from dehydration and motivation shortage, went home early. As soon as he got home, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But Jackson’s greatest fear became welcomed relief. It turns out Blackshire was fine. The bullet went in and out just above his left knee. The shooting happened a week before Jackson got wind of the incident.
“I was having a conniption fit,” Jackson says. “I’ve gotten bad news before. But this was one of the kids I knew really well. But by the time I found out, he was already back in the computer room upstairs. He even showed me where the bullet went in.”
Of course he was already back. For Blackshire, and so many other Oakland youth, EOYDC is home. Now in its 31st year of service, the center is a beacon for young people in an area known as the “Killer Corridor” in a city with a reputation for violence and poverty. It is a safe haven for the at-risk, a resource for the underprivileged, a second chance for the wayward—a means of giving back for the community-minded.
A smorgasbord of programs and activities provides participants with training and development they don’t get in school. The experience of the staff and the center’s wide-reaching volunteer connections create prospects and exposure otherwise unavailable. For some 2,500 people annually, the center is equal parts escape and opportunity. It offers an escape from broken homes, violent surroundings and low expectations, and it provides an opportunity for its participants to reach heights they never imagined.
“This place is the home away from home for some, and it’s the only home for others,” says Anana Scott, the GED instructor. “It’s a place of refuge, a place of solace, a place to be cheered and encouraged, a place to share your joys and your sorrows. Because many people who come through those doors have come through so much life, ups and downs. … Because out in the world, they already know what they’re going to get. So when they come here, they know this is the place that is going to encourage them and give them confidence to go back out there and do what they need to do.”
Robert Shetterly, Chief Executive Officer of Clorox, founded The East Oakland Youth Development Center in 1973. The doors actually opened in 1978. He and a support group of community members and corporate philanthropists created a foundation in 1983 to oversee the center’s finances and bring in money. The goal was to raise $16 million for an endowment fund. The interest would consistently provide a significant chunk of the center’s budget. This way, the staff could focus on serving the community and not, like most nonprofits, spend most of the year raising money to function. A year later, Clorox received the Social Justice award from President Ronald Reagan for its work creating the center.
By the time Jackson took over as executive director in 1994, the center had a $1.8 million budget. But a shift in strategy put in motion the vision that’s led to the comprehensive outreach that the EOYDC is known for today.
The center’s resources were focused on substance-abuse help, foster care diversion and hospital counseling, programs that were operated by a staff of 48 full-timers. Jackson cut down to 12 full-time staffers and shifted the focus to the core programs: physical development, job training and the arts.
Since then, EOYDC has established itself as a pillar in the neighborhood and a national model for community centers. Its list of successful alumni is highlighted by a roster of celebrities—including R&B star Keyshia Cole; NBA stars Gary Payton, Brian Shaw, Jason Kidd and Leon Powe; comedian Mark Curry; and musician D’Wayne Wiggins of Toni! Tony! Toné! fame.
Now up to 16 full-time staffers, the center also relies heavily on about 15 volunteers. The budget has been reduced to $1.1 million, about half coming from the endowment. The rest is raised through grant writing, special events and individual donations. The center gets nearly $60,000 annually in non-monetary donations (the two libraries are filled with donated books) some of which—such as 49ers and Disney on Ice tickets—Jackson gives to unpaid staff as perks.
The East Oakland Youth Development Center’s reputation for making a difference has prompted some deep pockets to help the cause. The annual Gary Payton Classic basketball tournament, another fundraiser, is now more than a decade strong. Lexus for years has sponsored a golf tournament as a fundraiser. In 2004, Magic Johnson joined Hewlett Packard to renovate and restock the EOYDC computer center. EOYDC now has $7 million of its $16 million endowment goal. It was up to $10 million but took a hit with the recession.
“We don’t have a lot of government funding,” says Jackson, who first worked for the center in 1984 as an intern on a fellowship after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. “Across the country, you always have these sexy [causes] to get money for. But it encourages nonprofits to constantly change their programs to fit the cause.”
The East Oakland Youth Development Center’s cause hasn’t changed, but the means of educating have certainly expanded over the years. Far more than a basketball gym and a free lunch, the center boasts a comprehensive array of resources.
The arts program is the envy of community centers everywhere. The center offers ceramics, photography, music and dance. The late singer Phyllis Hyman visited with the music program. The drawing and painting curriculum is highlighted by a summer art exhibition with Morrie Turner, a nationally syndicated cartoonist and Oakland native. Work from the program includes a 10-foot mural—one of many murals—at the front entrance, featuring illustrations of heroes and “sheroes” such as Cesar Chavez, Maya Angelou, W.E.B. DuBois and Clara McBride Hale. KRON-TV anchor Pam Moore puts on a creative writing workshop every summer.
The Home Alone Cooking Series is run by Lisa Marie Stubbert, who serves as head pastry chef (and handles the grill and sauté duties) at Frisée restaurant in the Castro district of San Francisco. For the last three years, she has spent two hours every Monday and Wednesday sharing her culinary skills with youth.
And they throw down.
One Wednesday, they made Cajun fish tacos with a mango and kiwi salsa. Another day, they served blood orange chicken and shrimp fried rice with a fortune cookie and banana pudding. On New Orleans Day, they whipped up jambalaya.
“For a lot of them,” Stubbert says, breaking into a grin, “their favorite—and it kills me—is tuna fish casserole. That’s one of the most basic, easy recipes that I teach. But they love it. They cling onto that one.”
In cooking class, they learn how to shop for groceries, how to feed themselves and how to put a recipe together. Most important, Stubbert would say, they learn how to eat in a healthful manner.
The physical development program continues the theme of proper nutrition, as well as exercise, in an effort to tackle the childhood obesity and health issues facing inner city youth. The program includes a boys’ and girls’ basketball team (the Hoyas), adult fitness programs, rowing and karate. The track and field program is regularly represented at the Olympic trials.
Friends of Jackson’s owned a gym that closed down, so they donated all the equipment. Now the youth center has a weight-training program. The Big City Mountaineers organization annually takes youth to the Yosemite Valley, where they get acquainted with the wilderness and climb a 10,000-foot summit.
Another core program is Job Opportunities for Youth (Project J.O.Y.), which is the nuts and bolts of the center. Under this program are the job training and placement services, the Homework Center—an area dedicated to studying and schoolwork—and computer classes for youth and adults. The General Education Development prep class, which gives young and old another crack at education, is churning out so many successful students that the youth center had to add a second graduation this year. It’s the first time the program has had two graduations in one year. The Summer Cultural Enrichment Program, a three-month camp of activities, is run by teenagers, allowing them to hone their organizational and leader–ship skills.
“It’s our best teen pregnancy prevention program,” Jackson says, “because my kids, at the end of the day, are so tired. They know how much work children can be.”
Talk to Jackson for five minutes, and the word college is inevitably going to spew from her lips. Perhaps the best barometer of the success of the youth center is the number of institutions of higher education in which its kids land.
Some of the personal stories of EOYDC products who made it and are thriving in college would warm the heart of Jack Frost People like 19-year-old Lanikque Howard, who used the center as a springboard to heights her circumstances usually never produce.
Howard was raised by a single mom who works two jobs and is studying to be a nurse. When she walked onstage at Oakland High School, she became the first in her family to graduate. What’s more, Howard has experienced enough death to thwart most people’s focus. In high school, she planted a flower in her front yard to memorialize the death of her grandmother. Before long, she had a garden as a handful of her friends lost their lives.
Despite it all, Howard earned the Chancellor’s Incentive Award, meaning she gets a full ride to the University of California, Berkeley. Currently she is in her sophomore year, majoring in child psychology.
Howard went through the youth center’s Pathway-to-College program, which helps students—including graduates of the GED program—qualify and apply for college and secure funding. She represents a crew of people that have overcome their situations to achieve scholastic success.
Jendayi Curry, niece of the Oakland-native and comedian Mark Curry, earned her way into California State University, Northridge and is now a senior majoring in sports medicine. She and her siblings have participated in EOYDC programs since they were knee-high to a chihuahua. Her sister, Jhavier, also went through the Pathway-to-College program and is now majoring in biochemistry and minoring in pre-med at San Francisco State University. Even their aunt, Brenda, is currently enrolled in the job-training course.
One of the core principles at the East Oakland Youth Development Center is education, and getting students into college is one of the center’s top priorities. College is a dream for many youths before they arrive at the youth center, which teaches a mindset that college is the feasible, expected next step. The indoctrination extends beyond the Pathway-to-College program.
Practically every guest speaker who walks through the door promotes higher education. They celebrate the center’s students who made it to and graduate from college like royalty, creating tangible role models for the youth.
Raiders star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, in support of the center’s push for higher education, takes teenagers on an annual college tour. This past spring, the group was guided on campus tours to Brown and Boston universities by the center’s alumni, and they also visited Harvard and the Berklee College of Music.
It’s all part of a culture that makes higher education not too high to reach.
“It helped seeing that there were other people striving for the same thing I was striving for,” says 2008 Castlemont graduate Victor Sandifor, a Chancellor’s Award winner who is now double-majoring in religious studies and African-American studies at UC Berkeley. “Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of role models. It’s easy to get down on yourself if you don’t have somebody supporting you and encouraging you.”
Not everyone is fortunate enough to make it up the ladder. One student in the GED program, Anthony Custard, 17, was making a change in his life. He’d gotten off the corner and into EOYDC, making himself at home in the hearts of the staff and students. He was known for his love of burgers—they nicknamed him “Burger”—and the turban he wore as a signature fashion statement.
But his transformation was cut short on July 24, 2007, when he was shot and killed in front of his home on 69th Avenue, where EOYDC members said he lay for more than five hours on the sidewalk covered only by a sheet. Custard was close to finishing the GED course. His picture and resolution still hang on the wall with the others: “I, Anthony Custard, vow that I finish this GED program in Sept. 2007 then work on becoming a longshoreman.”
Dealing with trauma and pain is as much a part of the East Oakland Youth Development Center as paint and computers and basketball and chocolate milk. The tragedies—the heart-wrenching stories of misfortune and failure—underscore the gravity of the work being done at the center.
“I’ve had a number of kids find out at the center that their parents were dead,” Jackson says. “I’ve had kids who were pulled out of their homes [by child protective services] and put in temporary shelters. They are being raised by grandmothers and aunties, by alcoholics and guardians with significant challenges, economic and otherwise. These are children who, by and large, haven’t done anything wrong. EOYDC gives kids at least a couple hours a day where they don’t have to worry about home problems, where they can be creative and experience success. … Unlike a lot of other jobs I’ve had, I’ve been able to see how the work I do every day translates. Every single day I know I’ve impacted someone’s life. There’s no feeling like that.”
Alegra Angelo, 16, is at EOYDC for similar reasons, though she didn’t always feel that way. The Bishop O’Dowd High junior attended private-school and grew up in the Castro Valley area. She’s already done some acting, and her mother is a successful lawyer.
So you can imagine her reaction when her mother told her she would be participating as a youth leader at EOYDC—an assignment her mother found through Google, starting in February 2008.
“My friends were like ‘Oh, my god, Alegra, that place is ghetto,’ ” Angelo says with her best Valley Girl impersonation. “I just though they were going to be s-o-o-o-o not like me. I expected [the children] to not listen to me. I expected the worst out of them. Bébé’s kids.”
Her proper dialect aside, Angelo didn’t look like an outsider in early October at the unveiling of the latest mural and first-ever herb garden at the youth center. She smiled. She danced. She even bragged, helping the children describe what was in their garden. Sage. Thyme. Italian basil. Cilantro. French tarragon.
“I planted this,” boasts 8-year-old Ariayana Mosely, a third-grader at Rise Community School. “It goes in salad, fish and poultry. Poultry is chicken and turkey.”
Angelo has found something inexplicably rewarding about pitching in at EOYDC—as has Bay Area sports broadcasting icon Martin Wyatt and singer Regina Bell, repeat volunteer contributors—and witnessing the development firsthand. She worked in the Summer Cultural Enrichment Program and served as the drama instructor.
Not only did she say she’s over her qualms about spending time in East Oakland, but she’s sad her time is coming to an end.
“They just accept you for who you are,” she says of the people. “They’re just fun.”
Fun is what they had with Blackshire. He endured no shortage of pokes and jabs for his inability to finish the Yosemite hike, especially with so many girls who did. Being the only person ever sent home comes with constant ridicule.
So Blackshire went again this August, another first for the center. This time, he ate proper food and made sure he was hydrated. He avoided altitude sickness and powered through the fatigue and discomfort. His name is now listed in the 10,000-foot Summit Club.
“There weren’t a lot of words, just about 72 teeth,” Jackson say of Blackshire’s reaction to finishing the trip. “His chest was poked out from shoulder to shoulder. I wanted that for Tyrrell. One, we’ve never had anybody come home early. He was flogged. People were clowning. He needed the opportunity to do that right.”
Fortunately for him, and so many other youths in Oakland, there is a place where such opportunity still exists.
J.O.Y. (Job Opportunities for Youth): The GED prep class, computer classes for youth and adults, a job club and the homework center all fall under this program.
Pathway-to-College Program: This program is designed to assist students in attaining higher education. The annual Something for Everyone event, a jazz and art festival, helps fund scholarships, college tours and the annual college fair.
Art Program: This program includes cooking, ceramics and painting classes as well as West African dance and steel pans.
Physical Development Program: An adult fitness class, basketball and karate for all ages, plus a track and field team. Also, Big City Mountaineers annually takes a handful of youth on an outdoor adventure.
Summer Cultural Enrichment Program: This summer camp is run by youth leaders at the center. It includes workshops on art, creative writing, cooking, dance, fashion and music. There are computer and Spanish classes, as well as educational field trips.
East Oakland Youth Development Center
8200 International Blvd., Oakland, CA 94621
Office Hours: 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.
Program Hours: 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Thu., 9 a.m–6 p.m. Fridays
Phone: (510) 569-8088
Fax: (510) 632-6942, www.eoydc.org