San Diego American Indian Youth Center: Strengthening Cultural Identify and Guiding Youth to their Full Potential
By Jacie Scott
The San Diego American Indian Youth Center (SDAIYC) is one of the many successful Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) programs funded by the Mental Health Services Act. Part of San Diego’s American Indian Health Center, the SDAIYC is an urban youth clinic serving primarily American Indian and Alaska Native youth between the ages of 9-22 years old. Unlike some youth “drop-in” centers, the SDAIYC requires youth to maintain a membership with the youth center, to encourage community and commitment to the program, while providing a strong foundation for mental, behavioral and cultural well-being.
The development of a well-rounded cultural self-identity is an important aspect of the SDAIYC. Moreover, the youth center strives to offer members the support, guidance and skills necessary to make important academic decisions and healthy life decisions. A variety of therapeutic, cultural education classes and activities are offered, some of which include drug and alcohol prevention; health and fitness education; current events discussion; healthy cooking classes; exercise groups; Native American art and dance classes; inter-tribal sports; American Indian life skills; spiritual talking circles; and individual, group and family counseling.
In providing these services, the center encourages personal growth and works to prevent substance abuse, domestic violence, bullying, STD’s and teen pregnancy, along with any negative involvement with the legal system. Furthermore, by offering healthy alternatives, youth are better prepared to handle difficult life situations and take care of both their body and mind.
[blockquote]”If it wasn’t for this program I don’t know where I’d be today. All the mentors taught me everything I need to know from this point on.” – Daniella [/blockquote]
In addition to these activities, youth counselors and volunteers also provide tutoring and homework-help for students from elementary school through college. Jesse, a former youth member and current SDAIYC staffer shares, “The youth center helped me plan for my college career. I plan on being a doctor, and the counselors helped me find out what I need to do and what schools I need to go to.” Whether students are interested in college, trade-school, or finding a job, the SDAIYC staff supports youth’s goals for the future.
The SDAIYC is invested in its youth’s cultural understanding and educational success, and the staff does everything they can to ensure students are prepared to take on responsibilities of the working world. Christopher Scott, SDAIYC’s Youth and Family Services Coordinator, states “[We have had our] successes and challenges, but what’s greater is seeing our youth grow.” Several of the youth who start out as members of the youth center eventually become SDAIYC volunteers and employees. Their investment in the youth center shows both their maturity and the importance of the services they received; as they would like nothing more but to mentor their peers in the same way they were once helped by their own mentors.
Among the many youth members who have since become employed at the SDAIYC are Daniella and Gabriel. Daniella, current SDAIYC staffer and youth mentor, shares, “About two years ago I went to my first Pow Wow, and that’s where I met Christopher – and that’s probably one of those moments that’s changed my life.” Daniella had only heard about the youth center before, and went to a Pow Wow with her sister to check it out. It was there she was convinced that the youth center would be a great program for her. Daniella came to the center as a high school student, and after being a youth member for about two months she was offered a job opportunity at SDAIYC.
Daniella says, “Working along side Christopher in the youth center, I was basically taught everything you could possibly do with a first-time job….It’s taught me how to be a better person and how to do everything I need out there in the work-world, socially and mentally, everything.” Daniella is very thankful for the SDAIYC program and mentors and explains that it was the SDAIYC that motivated her to finish high school and get her diploma. Along with working at the youth center, Daniella is also a full time college student, at San Diego City College. “All the mentors taught me everything I need to know from this point on. If it wasn’t for this program I don’t know where I’d be today… It’s been two years…and I’m still working there to this day, I’m still with it,” Daniella states.
Gabriel is another youth member who has since become a counselor at the SDAIYC. Gabriel smiles and says, “My story is actually one of pure luck.” After graduating high school, Gabriel had difficulty finding a job, and after an unsuccessful job hunt decided to volunteer to keep busy during the summer. Fortunately, not long after his decision, he learned that the SDAIYC needed volunteers. Gabriel explains, “Even though it was a volunteer position, I treated it like a job. I showed up with a collared shirt on the first day, and it was awesome…[I became a youth member] and for a few weeks I just got to hang out [with the youth], and next thing you know a volunteer position opened up.” Not long after Gabriel excitedly joined the SDAIYC staff as a youth counselor.
Along with working at the SDAIYC, Gabriel is also going to San Diego City College and plans to transfer to San Diego State University to pursue his Bachelors Degree in Child Development and a Masters in Special Education. Gabriel is very thankful for the way the youth center has helped him and provided him a job with lots of social interaction and workforce training. Even more, Gabriel shares his gratitude for the PEI funding that has allowed for the creation and success of the SDAIYC program. Gabriel states, “Overall, PEI funding has given me the ability to have a job and the opportunity to learn how to work in the real world and many, many youth do not have that. We have trade-schools, but what if a kid wants to strive beyond a plumber, strive to a CEO position? We need PEI programs to help them do that.”