By Ashly McGlone
ASHLAND -- Hundreds of children and young adults poured through the turnstile at the REACH Ashland Youth Center each day last week as sunshine poured through the windows of the long-sought after complex.
The two-story, 31,500-square-foot building opened its doors Monday to youth eager to take a free class in hip-hop dance, weightlifting, art or graphic design or just to hang out with friends after school in the new trendy state-of-the-art space.
The $23 million LEED Platinum building in the unincorporated Ashland community was funded by Alameda County with redevelopment funds hours before the state disbanded the agencies last year. It sits on an acre of land on East 14th Street once used as a fuel storage facility, now cleared of toxins, in a community plagued by eighth-grade dropouts and teen pregnancies, center officials said.
For several young adults raised in the area, seeing the center's doors open last week was the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work and planning. Everything from the center's chairs, tiles, exterior and interior design, classes and services -- which include a career center, counseling, and later on, a day care, health and dental clinic -- were decided with youth input.
Local youth are also the ones who led the charge to advocate for the project, organized in part by Hilary Bass, who today serves as program director of the nonprofit Alameda County Deputy Sheriff's Activity League, one the center's recreation providers. Nine years ago, Bass was leading an after-school program at a local housing complex when youth attendees voiced their concerns about a lack of activities available in the neighborhood.
San Lorenzo High graduate Derrick Bell, 21, joined Bass' group in 2009.
He said growing up, "We just really didn't have anything to do back then. ... People would just mainly hang out on the street." Bell said he got involved to bring activities to the community and now is assisting with paperwork and check-ins.
About 700 youth had become center members by the end of the day Friday, officials said.
"I wanted people to have something to do, people to have a future, people not to be bored and have nothing to do, not get controlled or hang out with the wrong crowd. ... The youth center is also going to create role models," Bell said.
Lamont Thompson, 22, grew up in Ashland and hopes he can be that role model. An East Bay Arts High graduate, Thompson was hired by the county to help counsel and supervise youth at the center. He got involved in planning it in 2008.
"The education and career center are what I am most passionate about. I feel like we've got to educate our kids and give them jobs," he said. He recalls suggestions by peers to add the second floor theater balcony to watch movies projected on the wall, and an open air courtyard at the center of the building. "It did get kind of overwhelming because they were explaining everything we had to do. ... But we had a plan, we set out what the plan was and now we are here."
Eighteen-year-old Marvin Prudhomme is set to graduate from San Lorenzo High in June. After trouble landed him in juvenile hall, he made a change after his release. He moved to the area a couple years ago and got involved in planning the youth center and drew the center's first logo.
"I remember picking out these chairs," said Prudhomme, who also raps and advocated for a high-tech music recording studio.
Edendale middle schoolers Tyler Gilbert and Flora Chavez said Wednesday they had visited the center each day since it opened.
"I like the place. It's like the new hang out spot for everybody," Tyler said.
Flora said she likes the weight lifting classes and said they have met kids from as far as Union City. The $2.25 lasagna from the cafe also received high marks.
"They should create more of these buildings to get kids out of their homes. Kids will be really interested in this," she said.
Pedro Naranjo, executive director of the center, operated by Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, said the costs for the first year of operations total $2.7 million, not including the clinic and day care not yet open. Agencies partnering to cover the costs and seek out donations include the county library, arts commission, sheriff's department and county health care services, which will provide 12 licensed counselors, as well as the San Lorenzo Unified School District and activities league.
"Every program that we have is being filled very quick. ... We are finding that we don't have to spend a lot of time convincing youth to be involved in structured activities." Rather, he said, "We need to offer more structured activities."
Bell hopes youth center attendees further their efforts.
"It's wild. Other people are able to be a part of what we created," said Bell, now taking classes at Chabot College. "They can build upon what we started."
Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.
The youth center is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. for 11- to 24-year-olds and is located at 16335 East 14th Street, next to the skate park. The center's grand opening event is Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m.