By E Evans
In a small portable classroom at the edge of Aptos Junior High’s campus, a group of kids ages 12-17 sit around a comfortable lounge area in conversation about the upcoming year while watching a quick ping pong battle on the table beside them. Surrounding them are fairy lights, balloons, Pride flags, and drawings they have created.
This lounge area was built piece by piece and designed by the students in the Aptos Junior High School Leadership Class and Aptos Community Youth Program who helped start a community-based youth program at Aptos Junior High, which now offers a free after-school program and other youth engagement opportunities.
Every year, the new program members add a small piece to the space to make it their own.
The youth program director for the Aptos Community Youth Program is Lisa Freeman. She has been the director since she moved to the area in 2019. After speaking to parents and students around Aptos, she explains that she started to hear that students felt isolated and like there were no spaces provided for youth to hang out together.
“The way that I look at how well and how healthy a community is how well we support young people, how many youth programs are available to them, and what kind of opportunities and experiences we are able to provide them,” Freeman said.
Aptos Community Youth Program integrates volunteer work with social events and opportunities for youth to design their own projects and experiences. In December, they celebrated the 3rd birthday of the program as well as held a craft night and the program also volunteered to help package food to give to families over the winter holidays with Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes.
An ongoing and popular event are cleanups at the beaches of the community. This event allows the students to interact and get outside as well as clean up the environment.
The program started with a group of 8th and 9th graders, who are now juniors and seniors at Aptos High School.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, youth members started a podcast called “Gen Impact” which focuses on the important issues that impact youth today.
So far, they have done episodes on the environment, social media, interviewed elected officials including Congressman Jimmy Panetta and Supervisor Zach Friend, and had many more insightful discussions. The podcast is a fun way for youth to connect with people in their community and share their ideas in a fun and collaborative way.
Youth programs not only open opportunities for the students to meet up with other kids but also with caring adults. With this, not only do the adults support the kids, they support each other. For the Aptos Community Youth Program, Freeman is that adult.
“Actually a lot of adult-led organizations…need youth,” says Freeman on why there is a common misconception around youth just needing adults.
This connection creates a strong and connected community in Aptos.
Especially during the pandemic, Aptos Community Youth Program provided an essential role in creating a lot of chances for Aptos youth to experience new things in a group even during a disconnected time.
“The program has given me opportunities through events and trainings that I believe I wouldn’t have found on my own,” says Aptos Community Youth Program member Michelle Zapata. She says it strengthened her leadership and her communication skills.
These skills are very valuable to the future of youth and provide backbone skills like interviewing, managing, and problem-solving — all of these skills open doors for careers and a better future for the youth.
Freeman added, “I think it’s helpful to just to have a program where you can try something…that’s how it prepares you because it helps you kind of discern that voice within yourself that’s like ‘who am I?’…that’s why I try to offer a wide variety of things in our program as much as we can.”
Aptos Community Youth Program acts as a never-ending outlet for youth to figure themselves out and gain confidence in doing that through a safe and fun group.
For information, see aptoscommunityyouthprogram.org or check Instagram @aptoscommunityyouth.