Inner-city Youth Strive for a Brighter Tomorrow

Posted on June 24, 2016 by Lauren McCann
   In the south L.A. community of Watts – with its long history of violence and strife – Strive, an after-school arts and academics program and catalyst for positive change, has transformed the lives of local children.

For over 50 years, the Watts neighborhood has been a center of crime and turmoil in the Los Angeles area. The Watts Rebellion of 1965 – the largest and most costly urban riot of the Civil Rights era – ended with over 600 local buildings looted and in flames. The damage was more far-reaching than just the physical, however, and lasted long after the final fires were extinguished.

The rampant poverty following the riots allowed for the power and numbers of local gangs to swell. The streets of Watts became a battlefield between the Bloods and the Crips – the most notorious gang rivalry in history – and ground-zero of the explosion of gang violence in L.A. Locals can still recall the fear and daily sounds of gunfire. Despite a slow decline in gang activity over the years, their influence persists. Crime is still too high in Watts—and the violence paints only a small portion of the local landscape.

Kids, in particular, face a number of difficult challenges growing up in the community: poverty, broken homes, severe unemployment, low performing schools, and gang and drug influences. These challenges place the youth of the community at extremely high risk, while threatening to trap them in a cycle of dependency and disadvantage.

Strive is re-shaping this landscape. What makes Strive different is an unrelenting belief in the potential of every child—and their ability to make each child see that potential for themselves.

An after-school academic community center, Strive provides a safe haven for these kids from the troubling issues and challenges they face every day. Founded over 25 years ago by Jim Tetreau and Don Anderson Jr., Strive is an academy-quality “mini campus” for inner city youth, providing a free learning environment and facility that serves 200 children and their families in the Watts and Green Meadows communities.

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My visit to see what Strive was all about coincided with their end-of-year honors assembly celebrating the kids’ academic success, which included not only students at the top of their class, but also most improved from the beginning of the school year. Overwhelmed with emotion and wiping away tears of joy holding up their certificates, they gleamed with pride to be recognized for their academic achievements. I was blown away by these kids, who have already faced so much adversity in their young lives, and it struck me how Strive had also given them something even greater: the chance to overcome the odds stacked against them.

By instilling the values of self-reliance and personal responsibility, Strive encourages the children to think and project themselves not as victims of circumstance—but as responsible stewards of their own futures. The program teaches the kids that they have the power to change the trajectory of their lives – to strive for something better – while providing them the resources to do so.

Their message of Healthy behavior – a willing attitude – then academics is significant to the approach that Strive takes in shaping these young lives. While soft skills emphasizing development of character, healthy behavior, confidence, and an optimistic attitude are the first step—it is the transformation of the children themselves which paves the way for the academic goals and success that follow.

Combining a child’s natural enthusiasm and desire to learn, Strive primarily emphasizes math and literacy fundamentals in a structured classroom environment, as well as study-skills and focus, in order to get them up to speed according to grade-level. Besides academics, Strive cultivates social skills in the children by providing them with the development lessons they might not be getting elsewhere. During my visit, their success was evident to me as I interacted with the children, as young men and women introduced themselves to me, telling me of their passions and love for Strive, demonstrating uncommon and proactive levels of engagement, participation, and curiosity.

Strive wants the pride the students feel in their accomplishments to extend to the center itself, which features classrooms and resource facilities, and a kitchen and café, where kids can eat nutritious, affordable meals while learning healthy eating habits. Students can spend down-time, practice arts and crafts, and play games in Ruby Court, a beautiful outdoor courtyard with ivy creeping across the walls and turtles roaming free—a stark contrast to the barred windows and empty lots pervasive throughout most of the local community, and a direct testament to the blood, sweat, and tears Tetreau and Anderson have put into taking Strive from idea to reality.

The co-founders had previously worked in luxury hotels, but their priorities shifted toward making a difference in the lives of people in need, and they applied their skills instead to creating an exemplary community center and after-school program for inner-city children. Tetreau himself was just 26 years old when he started Strive. He not only recognized a problem at a young age, but had the courage and determination to take a leap of faith and do something about it, despite no background in education.

The two scoured studies and statistics relating to poverty rates, violence and gangs, test scores, graduation rates, and other issues relating to child welfare in Los Angeles—in essence, they looked to where the need was greatest. The stats brought them to the community they now serve: the Watts-Green Meadows area of South Los Angeles.

The challenges these kids face on a daily basis are unimaginable to most—stepping over addicts passed out in the streets and sidewalks, through gang territory, just to get to school. Strive represents a sanctuary for these kids to alter the paths of their lives—to see a bigger vision for their future.  When only 3% of students at the local high school are reading at or above the national average, these children are equipped with the tools to succeed and excel—and are expected to.

By developing their moral and academic capabilities, the children internalize the values of strength of character, hard work, wise choices, work ethic, and individual responsibility, learning that these values, applied both to their studies and their lives, are the pathway out of poverty. The organization even applies these principles of personal responsibility into its own practices, looking to charitable donations and voluntary associations from the local community.

With students presently totaling 200, and hundreds on waitlists, Strive aims to reach even more kids. Renovation of an adjoining property is underway and opportunities sought to increase the scope of the program, to further enrich these young lives.

Strive is accomplishing the unthinkable in a deeply troubled community with a long history of poverty and violence: providing local children a desperately needed positive outlet amid a backdrop of gangs and drugs—while teaching them the skills and values for a brighter future.  Their mission in action represents our vision and belief at Stand Together, in the potential of every human being, and we have partnered with this catalyst for change to help them reach even more children with this positive message.  EVERYONE has a chance at a life well-lived—even the youngest and most vulnerable among us.  This chance begins at home, in the community—and Strive is doing their part to ensure that the children of Watts-Green Meadows have a community working to build them up – not tear them down – as they strive for a better tomorrow.

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From left to right: Jim Tetreau, Lauren McCann, Don Anderson Jr.