Jason Bocarro and Peter A. Witt
Summary: The youth development movement has long recognized that no one program is a panacea to serve all children and their needs. Indeed this recognition has culminated in various programs being offered outside traditional fixed facilities such as schools and recreation centers. In some cities this has led to the development of initiatives that specifically target youth not drawn to services or facilities currently offered. Thus, there is a growing movement to move youth workers into the field to work directly with youth who may be particularly susceptible to negative influences in their community and do not appear to be connected to youth-serving agencies, rather than waiting for youth to take the initiative to join a program at a fixed site.
A review of the literature reveals that this movement is far from new. Indeed the notion of detached youth work has a history dating back to the 19th and early 20th century where social workers would build relationships with youth on their territory and in their communities. This article provides a comprehensive historical analysis of the notion of detached youth work aligned with a brief analysis of some benefits in relation to a year long ethnographic (participatory) study conducted on one such inner city program run by a park and recreation department. Although this study reiterated many of the positive benefits found in previous work, the challenges facing such programs often make them an unattractive endeavor for many agencies in the long term. Often these outreach programs lack organization and consistent and sustained funding, and have a high staff attrition rate. Many of these programs initially offer promising and exciting options to their clients but are unable to sustain themselves because of some of the challenges outlined above.
KEYWORDS: Youth development, outreach, youth services, administrative and organizational challenges, Roving Leader, detached youth work.
The 1990s were characterized by a resurgence of policy makers - interest in youth related issues due to increases in problems such as drive by shootings, teen pregnancies, drug use, school drop outs, and gang membership. In the park and recreation field, many programs for “at-risk” youth trace their development to concerns about these issues (Witt & Crompton, 1996). Increases in programs reversed the downsizing and budget cuts that had occurred in the previous 15-20 years. During the late 1970s and 1980s, many departments shifted their emphasis away from addressing direct program leadership to a profession based management of facilities and opportunities and a basic philosophy of providing “recreation for all” (Sessoms, 1993). The oil embargos and taxpayer revolt during this period expediated this shift, leading to recreation departments being run more like a business and with greater entrepreneurial emphasis. Reductions in federal grant programs coupled with increases in competition for funds and rising maintenance costs forced many departments to focus on more efficient service production (Schultz, Crompton & Witt, 1995). Elected officials were under pressure to cut services that did not generate revenue and/or relied heavily on government subsidized support. Furthermore, the political climate during this period seemed to suggest resources should be allocated toward public safety measures (such as incarceration) to deal with crime increases rather than on public prevention programs.
Suddenly fewer organized recreation programs existed for youth. Additionally, park and recreation department (PARD) staff who had previously worked closely with youth were forced to spend more time dealing with administrative tasks, thus diminishing time they had to work directly with youth. As Sessoms (1984) pointed out, financial constraints prevented many youth organizations from serving low income youth as they moved toward self-sustaining, fee-based programs for the middleclass. Thus, recreation staff were less able to deal and cope with youth who were facing difficult life issues. This meant that many youth lost access to the mentorship and guidance staff had previously been able to provide (Bembry, 1998).
When youth problems became both more prevalent and visible in the late 1980s and early 1990s, city officials in many cities turned to PARDs to help find solutions (Witt & Crompton, 1996). However, in many cases recreation professionals recognized they had lost touch with the youth they had previously been serving. There were many youth who were not attracted to standard recreation programs and services. In addition, youth attending existing programs often felt that programs were not designed to meet their needs and leaders were not sufficiently available with whom they could interact. As park and recreation professionals realized that they were serving a limited number of youth and a limited portion of the youth population, there was a movement to create better services that connected youth workers to youth and better approaches for engaging youth who were not currently participating in programs.
Why Outreach Programs?
Previous research suggests that youth programs can contribute to positive adolescent development in areas such as enabling identity development (Shaw, Kleiber & Caldwell, 1995), providing fulfilling experiences (Zill, Nord, & Loomis, 1995), increasing academic achievement (Posner & Vandell, 1994), and empowering youth (Dubas & Snider, 1993). Furthermore, a number of sources have suggested that recreation plays a pivotal role in enhancing the lives of youth growing up in high-risk environments (Adler & Adler, 1994; Andrews, 1986; Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1992; Larson, 1994; Pizor, 1992; Posner & Vandell, 1994; Witt & Crompton, 1996).
Youth work in its modern guise emerged in the late 19th century as a movement designed to fill the dangerous void created by unsupervised free time. Although this period resulted in the development of numerous youth serving organizations, during the early part of the 20th century people realized that these services were only reaching a small percentage of working-class youth, with many others still involved in undesirable behavior.
Thus, alongside mainstream programs, a tradition of youth work emerged which sought to find ways of engaging youth who were not attracted to organized services. As a result, innovative programs designed to engage “dangerous and threatening youth” materialized, particularly programs that engaged youth on their own territory, on the street, and other places they congregated (Jeff, 1997). Although, the importance of formal youth serving institutions such as PARDs cannot be underestimated, there are a number of barriers that preclude youth participation in programs. Jones (1980) found that even if youth were involved with a youth serving organization, participation was often sporadic. He offered two reasons for a pattern of sporadic or noninvolvement. First, youth clubs sometimes found it too great a challenge to deal with testing and disruptive behavior displayed by participants. In other cases non-participation resulted from a lack of confidence on the part of the youth themselves. This led to youth exhibiting passivity and an unwillingness to enter and try new experiences.
Hendry (1991) argued that non-participation in structured recreation organizations is often the result of organizations being too tame, overorganized, or too much like school to appeal to some youth. Thus, while “conforming youth” may continue to be attracted to these organizations and the adults who run them, other youth may find these organizations unappealing or out of touch with the issues with which they are dealing. Indeed Bone (1972) described how academic attainment was related to peer acceptance and therefore, school drop outs were less likely to become involved in organized recreation services. Other research (Hendry & Simpson, 1977; Jephcott, 1967) found that adolescents were not involved in formal recreation activities because they were too aligned with school organizations and structure. Thus, because the nature of the program was too reminiscent of school or because programs took place in school, youth were put off from becoming involved in extra-curricular programs.
Hendry (1991) also argued that there is a possibility that subconsciously adults outside the family structure, who are often middle class professionals, often attract children who match their own backgrounds and may unwittingly deter youth whose backgrounds are different. A Search Institute study (Saito, Benson, Blyth & Sharma, 1995) found that the four main factors that contributed to non-participation were a lack of interesting programs, transportation problems, lack of knowledge, and cost of programs offered. Thus, despite the presence and availability of valuable resources in communities, individuals may feel disconnected from them and thus unwilling to participate.
Disconnection from community resources and social isolation usually takes two forms (Wilson, 1996). The first, deliberate isolation, occurs when individuals deliberately isolate themselves from institutions and those involved within mainstream society. The second, unintentional isolation, occurs when individuals lack contact with institutions and individuals within mainstream society. The consequences for children in situations where families become isolated is that they are often socialized by adults who lack the skills, experiences, and resources conducive to healthy development (Wilson, 1996). Further, in their neighborhoods, peer group cultures play a much greater role in shaping behavior, including detrimental unhealthy behaviors such as sexual encounters, drug use, gang involvement, and alcohol consumption (Wilson, 1996).
Overcoming isolation and non-involvement implies the need to develop outreach strategies. One such strategy employed in a few cities is a Roving Leader program, where youth workers are not deployed at a fixed site, thus enabling them to reach out to individuals isolated from community resources and hopefully negate many, if not all of the listed barriers.
History and Structure of Detached Youth Work
Roving Leader programs can be traced back to the mid-19th century and the Progressive era when church and charity workers sought out young delinquents and city gangs in the slum areas of emerging American cities. Trolander (1987) pointed out that many early social workers adapted their methods for working in low-income neighborhoods by developing a “neighborly” as opposed to a professional relationship with individuals they sought to help. Often this involved workers living in areas in which they worked, which gave them added insight into the issues residents faced.
Some of these efforts have been labeled detached youth work programs. The detached youth worker, which has also been referred to as area worker, street worker, corner-worker, extension worker, and street gangworker among others, is basically defined as an individual who works with youth in non-organized, informal settings, usually on the street (Thompson, 1999). Freeman (cited in Thompson, 1999, p. 13) summarized the philosophy behind these types of programs as follows:
Detached work involves intensive contact with a corner-group where the worker meets the teen-age group in their natural environment. By close association with them and getting to know their needs as a group and as individuals, the worker forms a positive relationship and helps them to engage in socially acceptable activities which they come to choose. The basic goal is helping them to change undesirable attitudes and patterns of behavior.
Bernstein (1964) believed that agencies could only be successful in implementing a detached youth worker model if three elements existed: (1) financial security; (2) a firm commitment to imagination, flexibility and integrity; and (3) a readiness to deal with failures and being prepared for change. Thus, these elements required a long term commitment toward the program (in terms of program content and design) and specifically the staff (providing wages that youthworkers could realistically support themselves).
In the park and recreation movement, street worker programs took on the Roving Leader designation. In the 1930s, Chicago initiated a Roving Leader-type program, followed by similar efforts in New York and other U.S. cities in the 1950s (Bannon, 1969). Bernstein (1964) and Thompson (1999) both provided an excellent overview of some of the key detached youth work programs that emerged over this period, as well as a summary of their underlying assumptions and programmatic goals. These included programs that were developed in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Cleveland. Although not specifically run by PARDs, they incorporated many recreation components within their programs. The basic premise behind these efforts stemmed from the realization that youth workers who “roamed” in communities would be knowledgeable about the neighborhood in which they worked and would therefore be better able to find and interact with youth (Bannon, 1972).
Some of the methods used by street workers have involved going to where the youth are, be it street corner, pool hall, corner store, alley, or park (Thompson, 1999). Austin (1957) listed some essential elements of street workers that made them unique. First, the program’s philosophy began with a problem not as a specific program activity. Therefore, services were available to youth who had the greatest need rather than those who had paid a fee. Second, programs were heavily tied to the relationship between youth and staff, rather than being based on a set of activities or structured program in a particular type of building.
Third, contact occurred in the community not in an institutional setting. This was important in that all institutions have formal standards that guide workers in areas such as selection and service of clientele. As Austin (1957, p. 45) pointed out, “many formal controls on membership and time and type of program are used by professional workers to create the best possible situation for effective work.”
The final element noted by Austin was that the service provided by street workers was not initially requested by youth and thus it served a “reaching out” function through the worker taking the first step in alleviating any fear, suspicion, and hostility that might exist. Overall, these outreach principles stressed the importance of the personal relationship between staff and youth.
The nature of the activities for outreach workers varied. For example, Spergel (1962) described how outreach work was multidimensional and consisted of three types of activities: (1) sociocultural activities that attempted to alleviate factors that blocked opportunities for youth as well as providing opportunities through liaising with official representatives of specific institutions; (2) small group activities that enabled the group to meet the collective status needs of its members; and (3) discrete activities focused on the individual, such as those that examined how each child reacted to factors such as acceptance, rejection, frustration, stress, insecurity, and interpersonal relationships.
Taking It to the Streets
Although the 1990s led to a resurgence of funding for PARDs as youth issues once again became a “hot political topic,” apathy, lack of resources, and poor quality of services related to the budget cuts during the previous era, resulted in a number of youth not utilizing available services. This under-utilization of services among certain youth in urban communities, aligned with a growing prevalence of juvenile crime, concerned many departments. This concern resulted in San Antonio’s Roving Leader program, originally developed in 1972 and dropped in the early 1980s, being resurrected in 1992 (Crompton & Witt, 1997). To reach these youth, Roving Leaders went back out into their communities, looking for children who were particularly susceptible to negative influences in their home or neighborhood environments and were not connected to youth serving agencies. In 1998, six years later, the City of Austin's PARD decided to initiate their own Roving Leader program.
For seven months during 2000-01, the first author was able to conduct an onsite study of Austin's Roving Leader program. During his residence in Austin he used a variety of methods to collect data that included participant observation and field notes, informal and formal interviews, case studies and demographic/census data (Bocarro, 2001). Through this process he was able to have in depth contact with the Austin program, its leaders, the program participants, their parents, and professionals in other organizations who cooperated with the program. He gained access to information and insights he would not have had if he had simply done surveys or dropped in for occasional interviews. “Living” the program helped him see the everyday issues that youth experienced, allowed him to directly observe interactions between leaders and program participants, and gain an understanding of both the strengths of the program and some of the obstacles faced in carryout the program model.
Austin's program began with a similar model to previous outreach programs and marketed itself as being able to target youth who were particularly hard to reach. Its philosophy evolved from the recognition that many youth were not taking advantage of structured and/or drop-in programs available at the city’s recreation centers or those offered by private, voluntary agencies. In bringing recreation activities to youth and taking them on a variety of educational and entertaining field trips, Roving Leaders not only kept youth off the streets and out of trouble, but they also provided positive role models to encourage excellence in school and in life. Further, the individualized attention that staff were able to provide accentuated the benefits previously described.
For the Austin program, staff typically work with children and youth ranging in age from eight to nineteen, although in some cases younger children are involved as younger siblings might accompany their older brothers or sisters. The eight communities that the APARD Roving Leader program served had a high proportion of families that were either Mexican American or African American. Although diverse, the participants share many characteristics. Most are poor or lower middle class. Many live in single parent families headed by a mother or grandmother. In some cases, their father or mother is in jail, dead, or has never been part of the household. Many of the participants are exposed to gangs, drugs, and alcohol at home or in their neighborhoods and schools. Many have witnessed violence, even against members of their own family. Many have had behavior problems at school, and some have been suspended. A few have been arrested for offenses such as shoplifting or selling drugs.
The program itself had five unique aspects that allowed it to attain its overall objective of reaching and keeping these “hard to reach” youth (see Table 1). First, the program sought to address issues in a holistic manner. This entailed Roving Leaders building relationships with the youth as well as his or her teachers, parents, and other extended family. Second, staff were given the flexibility to “roam.” They were rarely tied to a fixed site. This freedom allowed them to deal with the often spontaneous situations and issues that emerged with the youth they served.
Third, there was an immediate recognition of a need to take an individualized approach in order to be able to reach out and work in depth with the target population. Therefore, Roving Leaders were initially absolved from the pressures of serving large numbers of youth so that they would be free to build relationships with youth and their families who needed more individualized attention.
Fourth, staff were encouraged to learn about and work with a number of different agencies and resources so they would be able to better serve youth and make their limited resources go further. Finally, the structure of the program meant that there was less direct supervision than site based programs which allowed staff greater autonomy. This allowed them to be more responsive to the ever changing needs and circumstances of the youth they served.
Table 1 Program Characteristics and Impact on Goal Achievement
|A holistic ecological approach to the program||Able to better understand the issues in that child's life.|
|Flexibility - not being tied to a specific site||Able to better deal with spontaneous situations that emerged|
|Less concern with quantity (number) of children served||Better equipped to deal with individual issues that take time and effort to address|
|Encouraged to work across departments and agencies||A full understanding of what is available in the community and to utilize resources.|
|Less direct supervision and more autonomy||Can deal more directly and quickly with communities needs.|
Funding Cuts. During the 4th year of the program, budget cuts were proposed for the program, mainly due to overall belt-tightening throughout Austin's municipal government due to a down-turn in the area economy. The Roving Leader program was targeted as one possible area for cuts. Given the nature of the program, funding cuts that would lead to either decreasing staff hours, reducing staff, and/or hiring fewer people who would have full benefits were seen as having a potentially negative impact on the relationships established between program personnel and the youth that they served. Many of the program participants already had significant instability in their lives and losing contact or having diminished contact with their mentors would serve as just another example of the “system” letting them down.
The conventional wisdom among those advocating improved approaches to youth development programs is that the funding stream must not be based on a short-term perspective (Pittman, Irby, & Ferber, 2000). In fact through short-term, one shot programs, agencies may even be contributing to programmatic shortcomings by building up unrealistic expectations among youth and failing to follow through with long-term, ongoing services. Fisher (cited in Witt & Crompton, 1996, p. 24), has stated that unless a consistent funding base is available no long-term progress will be made in maintaining programs, and thus relationships.
To avoid creating false expectations, we will need to make the hard decisions now about what we can realistically support in the future; we will need to build political alliances that will provide the advocacy and support base for programs; we will need to build ownership of programs among political and consumer constituencies; and we will need to find long-term corporate support. More importantly, we will need city government to invest local tax dollars on a continuing basis to support programs. We can be creative in our financing but it will take long-term commitments and continuing support if we are to build sustainable programs (cited in Witt & Crompton, 1996, p. 25).
City Council members need to be convinced of the negative implications of building, then reducing funding for program initiatives.
Show Me the Evidence. From the beginning of the program, there were discussions about how to demonstrate the effectiveness of Roving Leader interactions with the participants. Efforts were made to keep track of the number of participants and the amount of time spent with each. In any given year the program registered approximately 800 youth. From the beginning of the program, questions were raised about whether a staff of 20+ individuals were working in an efficient manner if each were only involved with 40 youth in a given year. In addition, the program manager was asked to keep track of contact hours for each Roving Leader (one contact hour equaling an hour spent with one participant. If a Roving Leader worked with three individuals for five hours, this generated 15 contact hours.) Contact hour numbers were not questioned until the program came under increased scrutiny during the budget cut discussions.
The small group and individualized nature of the program meant that in most cases, Roving Leaders might generate a limited number of contact hours per day. Being able to work in depth with a small number of individuals was the best way to accomplish the program’s overall objectives. While some time was spent in larger group activities, the key element of the program was its ability to promote intensive efforts as required with specific individuals.
The contact hour discussions were a classic case of using an efficiency measure as a basis for determining program effectiveness. Contact hours could be used to determine the cost per hour of service, which in the case of the Roving Leader program was going to be high due to the way the program was conceived and designed. In addition, since the program had difficulty operationalizing program outcomes, efficiency measures predominated in discussions of program impact. Program managers and city hall administrators were used to using efficiency measures since they provided a ready-made basis of inter-program comparisons.
A day in the life of a Roving Leader: “The reality”. The following brief case study demonstrates the impact of using contact hour generation as a primary measure of program impact.
Armando (pseudonym) was one of the youth enrolled by the program. On one occasion, Robert, the Roving Leader, was called by a local elementary school to seek assistance in working with Armando, an Hispanic 5th grade student. Armando had been expelled from several schools, had an attitude problem, and was very adept at intimidating other Youth. He had spent the year in and out of trouble. When Robert got to the school he visited with Miss Sanchez, his home room teacher, who explained how Armando had started throwing rocks at some other students and had refused to stop, despite the fact that he had just returned from an alternative school and had been threatened with expulsion. She felt that Robert had developed a good rapport with Armando in the brief time he had been in the Roving Leader program and wanted Robert’s advice.
Robert spent the next 45 minutes over lunch talking to Armando and then spent an hour with the assistant principal and principal who had tried but were unable to contact Armando’s father. His mother was reluctant to leave work to come to the school. The principal explained to us that his parents had given up on Armando and his mother had told Miss Sanchez that she was scared of him. The principal asked if Robert could attend a meeting with Armando, the assistant principal, Miss Sanchez, and Armando’s parents. About an hour into talking with Armando, his parents finally showed up along with Miss Sanchez. Armando was eventually told that he would be sent back to DIL for a week, although all the parties agreed that Robert could still try and work with him.
After the meeting his parents agreed that Armando could spend the rest of the day with Robert. Although Robert had planned to spend time with several small groups of other participants in the afternoon, he cancelled those plans so he could give Armando one on-one attention.
If Robert had proceeded with the original day he had planned, he would have interacted with a number of children and generated approximately 105 contact hours. As it turned out, the Robert’s day was taken up with Armando’s problems and ended up generating approximately 25 contact hours, six of these with Armando and the rest generated when he was eventually able to meet a group of other program participants for a short period of time. The challenge for Roving Leaders was to balance the need for in-depth contact and problem-solving with a few individuals versus meeting the needs of a larger number of participants and meeting contact hour expectations.
The above example highlighted the need for management and organizational goals to be flexible with the realization that some of the successes of the program were due to the one-on-one time-consuming interactions that had the potential to reach the hardest core cases. Deciding how to balance the two was a judgment challenge for Roving Leaders.
To counteract some of the concerns about generating contact hours, efforts are currently being made to generate evidence of program impact, through implementation of a rating form that will show participant’s progress over time. While this system should be helpful in demonstrating program impact, there still is an administrative tendency to feel that the more registrants and contact hours that can be generated the better. These measures are seen as giving a real-time snap shot of how the Roving Leaders are spending their time, while actual changes in attitudes or behavior may take a considerable period of time to take place.
This situation also highlighted the need for management and organizational goals to be flexible with the realization that some of the successes of the program were because of the one-on-one time-consuming interactions that have the potential to reach the hardest core cases. Deciding how to balance the two was a judgment challenge for Roving Leaders.
Staff Attrition. The attrition rate of Roving Leaders was high as staff found it hard to balance the high level of commitment needed to the program. Staff often worked beyond an eight hour day and were often on call to deal with difficult situations as they arose. Extended hours often took time away from family and other responsibilities and created a situation where the leaders had a hard time being away from the program even when they were not officially on duty.
To make matters worse, requirements of the job and dedication on the part of the Roving Leaders were not rewarded at the appropriate salary level. This problem exists throughout the youth development field, but was particularly telling in this case given the stress and hours associated with the job. While the park and recreation department had made attempts to raise salaries for the lead staff members in the program, salaries were still lower than other available jobs Roving Leaders could have pursued. In addition, a number of the leaders did not receive full benefits as part of their compensation package.
Together these factors led to a high staff attrition rate. In a program that emphasized building staff-participant relationships over a relative long time period, attrition threatened to undermine program success. There were 21 Roving Leaders in September, 2000, including eight full-time Roving Leader supervisors, six full-time assistant Roving Leaders and seven part-time Roving Leaders. By Spring, 2001, nine Roving Leaders had left the program (a supervisor, a full-time assistant and seven part-time assistants) with only three of these positions being refilled. This problem was compounded by the fact that departmental funding was frozen so only part time Roving Leaders were able to be hired. This change further compounded the attrition rate as many could not afford to work at that pay level without benefits, especially if they had a family to support. As the program supervisor pointed out,
It’s hard to find staff who have a real love for recreation because that’s what it is all about. And who don’t mind that the hours are going to be crappy and that they are going to encounter a lot of emotional baggage, teen pregnancy, shootings and stabbings, some youth going hungry, that kinda stuff. That they could look beyond that and go I’ve gotta continually help this child, let me find the resources and that are really unselfish.
Even when quality staff were recruited and they enjoyed the job, keeping them for an extended period of time was difficult. This resulted in ongoing advertising, hiring, rehiring, recruiting, and training processes which were both expensive and time consuming. Furthermore, these ongoing processes made it hard to maintain program momentum and quality.
Although prior studies have shown that outreach programs have much to offer youth living in high risk environments (e.g., Baker & Witt, 2000; Bannon, 1972; Crompton & Witt, 1997; Thompson, 1999; Witt, Crompton, & Baker, 1999), there are many challenges to implementing and maintaining these programs. The problem of program sustainability, even among successful youth programs has been identified as a debilitating issue by a number of youth development experts (c.f., Dryfoos, 1990; Lerner, 1995; Schorr, 1988). Unfortunately as noted by Little (cited in Lerner, 1995), the issue of program sustainability is often disregarded.
Too often recreation youth services are funded as a band aid solution, where the long term nature of issues are only temporarily addressed. Outreach programs, because they are not facility based, are even more susceptible to budget cuts because often staff can be easily reassigned to facility-based programs. Thus, funding is often directed toward short-term programs without much concern for long-term sustainability. This has even more drastic consequences for outreach efforts where staff build up trust and relationships with youth in the community. Short-term funding will result in these programmatic relationships being curtailed resulting in residents becoming even more disillusioned.
Lerner (1995) described some of the consequences of short-term programs that parachute in and out of communities. He pointed out that communities often feel less hopeful and empowered than before the program existed. Thus, although the hopes for improvement in the lives of children and families in specific communities may have been realized, the inability to sustain the program may result in residents feeling a sense of loss, disappointment, or even exploited or angry.
Thus, it is necessary to plan programs with long-term objectives rather than direct money into short-term funding efforts that get widespread attention but cannot be sustained. Unfortunately, many of the funding decisions are made by elected government officials who have short-term and personally self-sustaining political agendas to fulfill (Crompton & Lamb, 1986).
Royse’s (1998) study on a mentoring program for high-risk African American youth suggested that the amount of time youth spent with their mentors was critical. Programs that lasted for a short period had limited or no impact. Royse (1998) concluded by stating that although many policy makers like to see mentoring initiatives as “a quick fix” they are probably not.
In a climate of scarce resources there is a need to be careful how money and personnel are used. If they are invested in program methods that do not reflect primary program principals, then better outcomes for disadvantaged children and families will not occur. Therefore, too often money is thrown at programs with little thought of previous successful or unsuccessful practices (Cameron & Vanderwoerd, 1997).
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, directed his followers to, “Go not to those who need you, but to those who need you most” (Milton, 1970). Two centuries later the same directive applies. Although history serves as a useful guide for overcoming challenges to implementing and designing new programs, it can sometimes show that reemerging trends are not dealt with and lessons have not be learned. Commentators such as Sessoms (1984; 1993) and Bembry (1998) have pointed out that recreation youth services often become more mainstream in that they serve the less needy, easier to handle youth as resources become scarce. Milton (1970) stated that youth organizations tend to become more interested in their own survival, consolidating their resources as time progresses, rather than worrying about the communities they serve. Thus, the history of the youth movement is littered with examples of programs that started as radical and unique but soon became “respectable,” part of the establishment, and vulnerable.
Often, youth who are underserved by recreation programs are those who need these programs the most. In examining this particular outreach program over its first three years, the issue of programs becoming more mainstream seemed particularly significant. The Roving Leader program initially targeted youth who were harder to reach, were not connected to resources in their community and often had more extreme life issues affecting them. Unfortunately the consequences of serving more youth resulted in more site-based activities with children who had less severe issues in their lives and were easier to handle. As one Roving Leader pointed out in justifying why she had limited her involvement with Natalie, a 12 year old African American girl with behavioral problems: “It’s hard to have Natalie around all the time with the amount of kids we now have.”
Thus, from the outset, the Roving Leader program challenged the conformist idea of serving as many youth as possible in favor of more one-on-one time with individuals. However, as the pressure to justify and maintain its existence increased, the need to satisfy the political establishment emerged that led to a call for increasing contact hours. Program supervisors felt they needed to justify the program to external sources, by showing impressive statistics pertaining to the number of children they were serving rather than doing a quality job serving a smaller number of youth.
These issues are not confined to outreach programs and are endemic among many park and recreation programs that serve youth. Many site based programs struggle with the same issues of staff attrition, long term sustainable funding, and finding a balance between being efficient and being effective. However, while these issues are present among other programs, they are particularly prevalent among outreach programs. Many outreach programs demand more of staff in terms of the hours, the situations staff must deal with on a daily basis, and difficulties in supervision. Furthermore, because they do not have a fixed site, outreach programs are often seen as more expendable and temporary, even though in the eyes of many of their participants they are seen as just as, if not more valuable and necessary. If a commitment is made to work with communities and participants through various outreach programs, it is important for city planners and managers to first ensure that these outreach programs are not temporary, short-term solutions which too often they end up being.
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This feature, Journal of Park and Recreation Administration Volume 20, Number 3 Fall 2002 pp. 65-80