Teen Staff Attracts Youths to Centers

At Fairfax County's Culmore Teen Center, Candida Benitez, 18, youth worker Elisa Duarte and Melissa Rodriguez, 16, work on crafts.
At Fairfax County's Culmore Teen Center, Candida Benitez, 18, youth worker Elisa Duarte and Melissa Rodriguez, 16, work on crafts. (By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

At a Fairfax County youth center in Culmore, lots of boys passed the time one recent evening playing billiards. But the girls there seemed adrift, until staff member Ana Espinoza arrived with bags of tiny pompoms, hundreds of sparkly beads and boxes of pizza.

Soon, five girls were giggling as they made key chains and miniature pompom teddy bears. It was another small victory for a Fairfax initiative to increase the popularity of county youth programs. Espinoza and her colleagues know how to get the job done, because they are teenagers themselves.

"We're trying to bring the youth to the centers," Espinoza, 17, told the girls. "Since you guys are girls, what would you like to do here? Would you like more stuff like this?"

"Oh yes," said Lenny Mendez, 12, who was hard at work on a pink and gray pompom mouse.

Fairfax started the youth-worker program last summer, hiring five teenagers to find ways to get their peers in the door and away from gangs, violence and substance abuse. Officials were so impressed with the results that this year, the program expanded to include 10 young workers, split into two teams, who plan events and offer advice on what's working.

This fall, the teenagers -- who earn $10 an hour -- plan to meet with the county's director of community and recreation services, top police officials and Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) to present recommendations. And Espinoza's group already has ideas.

The youth centers, they say, need more activities specifically for girls, more soccer matches to draw Latino youth and more staff diversity. They would like to see more marketing to teenagers, especially for a trip to Paramount's Kings Dominion amusement park in Doswell, Va. Not to mention some snazzier photos and graphics on the county Web site -- the workers called it "kind of boring."

William Canas, 17, a senior at Annandale High School, was an original worker and returned this summer. Canas said he didn't know much about youth centers before taking the job, and he admits it would not have been easy to get him in the door.

"It just doesn't sound like it would be for me," Canas said. "I think if someone came to talk to me, if it was an adult, I wouldn't like it. But I think if it was someone like me, I would look into it."

That, county officials said, is the idea.

The team worked the crowd this month at National Night Out, a community crime- and drug-prevention event, and visited summer school classes to invite students to a back-to-school dance and fashion show Thursday.

"I say, 'What's up, man?' or 'How you doin'?' instead of approaching it like a serious matter," explained Julio Davila, 16, an Annandale high junior.

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