“What makes the Youth Institute so unique is it’s a youth development program that uses technology as an engagement tool,” said Les Peters, Executive Director of the YMCA of Greater Long Beach. “We use technology like an expensive paintbrush, so young people see the computer as something they can create with. We’re really focusing that tool of technology to help young people for academic success, creative expression and workforce development.”
Each year, students from the Long Beach Unified School District are selected for the program following a competitive application process. According to Peters, the program is focused on serving youth in the transitional phase between middle school and high school in order to keep them on a path toward graduation and, ultimately, an opportunity to pursue a college degree. The Youth Institute’s primary goal is to “improve academic achievement and stimulate interest in post secondary education among low-income, culturally diverse, urban high school youth,” according to its website.
“We’re looking for those types of young people that need this program,” Peters explained. “It’s a program of caring, kindness and compassion, in the sense that young people need those extra support systems in order to stay in school, go to school every day, graduate, and go on to college. That’s a big outcome for us, that over the last 20 years our graduation rate is in the upper 90s.”
The Youth Institute offers its participants the opportunity to learn in a variety of settings, all at no cost to the student. The program includes a bonding trip to Mammoth Mountain, where students get to explore a different environment and learn outside of a traditional classroom setting.
Back home at the YMCA, they have access to a wide array of technology in a space that was designed by, and for, the students. Their high-tech computer lab features rows of iMac computers, loaded up with cutting-edge editing and design software. Students are given the opportunity to explore video storytelling, video production, graphic design, sound editing, and more. They even get access to a 3D printer to bring their designs to life.
Each class produces a magazine during the course of their experience, which is written, designed, and laid out by the students. In addition to the computer lab, members of the Youth Institute also have access to a music recording room, where they can use top-of-the-line equipment to record their own music, podcasts, or other projects. The recording equipment and musical instruments were donated to the Youth Institute by world-famous rappers and Long Beach natives Vince Staples and Snoop Dogg.
Since its creation in 2001 by Bob Cabeza, the Youth Institute has earned national acclaim and spawned similar programs around the world. To date, 14 Youth Institutes have been started up at YMCA locations across California, and beyond state lines to Washington, South Dakota, Canada, and Cambodia.
Bryan Guteirrez, 19, started attending the Youth Institute in 2017, the summer after his eighth-grade year. He credits the program for helping him come out of his shell and find a new passion for videography.
“It’s the biggest change in my life, honestly,” said Gutierrez. “Coming out of eighth grade, I was always a really shy kid, and I did get in trouble here and there. But with the institute, they aim to help the community, which a lot of the time is underprivileged or disenfranchised students. When I came here I got better at socializing with other students and that was a really big step for me. After that first summer, I was really glad my sister got me into this program, not just for the technology skills, but also for developing myself to be a better person.”
As an alumnus, the Youth Institute offered Gutierrez his first job, and he’s continued to stay involved with the program over the years, currently serving as a technology instructor.
“It’s something we always kind of preach here–the best way of learning is by teaching,” Gutierrez said. “Not only are we still learning, but so are the new students who are getting introduced to photography and film and all these different programs that we offer. We’re all learning at the same time. So it’s like a full circle moment right there.”
The class of 2022 had their graduation ceremony earlier this month, and will now transition into being alumni of the program for the upcoming school year. The YMCA will continue to be a resource for those students during their high school careers, guiding them on a path toward a diploma.
“Once they become alumni of the Youth Institute, this becomes their after-school program,” Peters said. “This becomes their social support. This isn’t just a place to come and hang out, but it’s also a place for their parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors to receive services, too. When young people are selected for this program, we look for those that have difficulties or hardships in their lives that need that extra support.”
The YMCA of Greater Long Beach is at 1900 Long Beach Blvd. Visit their website for more information on the services they offer.