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Illinois Parks & Recreation
May/June 1995 • Volume 26, Number 3

Because We Care...
Digging Out of the Teen Trap

by Ray Morrill, CLP and Barbara Eaton, CLP

Not enough to do. Too much supervision. Everything costs too much. No way to earn spending money. Not old enough to work.

No wonder today's teenagers are confused, bored and frustrated. In a society which places such heavy emphasis on the power of the dollar, many teens can't make a buck. In a world full of exciting, challenging possibilities for children, adults and senior citizens, teens can't seem to find challenges and diversions to fit their personalities, their particular needs.

This vacuum—this question mark—creates a unique challenge for the rest of society and particularly for those of us in parks and recreation.

The Wheaton Park District offered 190 different programs for teenagers last year. The district also maintains 47 park sites on close to 800 acres of land for the passive and active interests of all our residents, including teenagers. The aquatic facilities, community center, fitness center and golf course also provide positive recreation avenues. Last year more than 750 individuals, many under the age 21, worked for the park district and volunteered at the Lincoln Marsh, Cosely Animal Farm, and elsewhere in the district in capacities too numerous to mention.

And yet, all we do is obviously not enough. We found in a recent Community Needs Assessment conducted by the City of Wheaton that two comments were repeated over and over by teenagers: "There's not much to do," and "Social and recreational activities in the community cost too much.'' So, even though we're providing a lot for teens through the park district, we're not doing enough to reach this important segment of our population.

When we talk about recreation opportunities in the community, we're not just talking about opportunities provided by the park district or the city recreation department. We're talking about opportunities provided through schools, churches, YMCAs, youth groups, and yes, park districts.

The Wheaton Park District, with the assistance of National- Louis University, recently conducted its own random survey of our residents. Two of the questions asked were, "Do you think teenagers are aware of park district programs?" and "What programs would you suggest we offer?" More than half (54 percent) of those responding had no opinion on whether teens were aware of park district programs. Of those who did respond to the question, 31 percent believed local youth were aware of the programs and activities offered, and 15 percent thought teens were unaware of what is available for them.

Program ideas and suggestions which came out of our survey and the community needs assessment conducted by the city included:
» intramural sports program/team sports
» a place to go/a place to hang out
» dances
» battle of the bands
» open gym hours
» drama/theatre programs
» trips
» adventure programs
» community service projects
» and volunteer opportunities.

A recent survey in the National Recreation and Park Association's (NRPA) magazine noted that "youth perceive 'hanging out' to be a recreational activity and actually ranked it number one of their ten favorite activities." "Hanging out," the survey said, meant socializing in an unstructured setting, preferably without obvious adult interference or supervision. As adults we may not consider "hanging out" to be a viable or useful activity, but teenagers do.

Perhaps it's time to consider another aspect of the teenage boredom cycle. To be sure, recreation, athletics, school and "hanging out" take a lot of time. But many teenagers, perhaps the majority of those in the 14- to 18-year-old high school range, are finding their goals and themselves through work—or they would if it were possible for them to hold jobs.

Our legislators have been discussing at great length the Crime Bill through which NRPA estimates that $3 billion could potentially be available for public park and recreation initiatives, individually and in partnership with other community

40* Illinois Parks & Recreation ¦ May/June 1995

organizations. Our legislators debate the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act at a cost of some $30 billion ($5.5 billion in prevention funding). At the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives, according to an April 5, 1995 editorial in the Daily Herald, "will vote on a proposal to eliminate the summer jobs program for youth."

The summer jobs program offers youth positive work-related experiences—earning their own money, strengthening their self-esteem, opening avenues for possible careers, teaching responsibility, relieving boredom, and keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. This federally supported summer youth program is often the only employment option for 14- and 15- year-olds other than jobs provided by local park and recreation agencies.

The Department of Labor provides yet another stumbling block for teenagers seeking employment. Recently it fined several park districts for alleged violations of the child labor laws, specifically for employing 14- and 15-year-olds in violation of hours regulated by the Department and for employing persons under 14 years of age. The child labor laws in this country were enacted in 1933, and it seems that the only time they are evaluated is when our legislators review the minimum wage requirements. The current federal and state child labor laws must be reviewed and revised to reflect the current and future needs of our youth. Obsolete rules under the current child labor laws prohibit those 14 and 15 years old from working later than 7: 00 PM from Labor Day through May 31 and prohibit those under 16 from working more than one hour per day if they are in school seven hours per day.

At a time of extremely disturbing headlines featuring teens in the news, one would expect our federal and state legislators to get serious about dealing with teen issues. Headlines from just one local newspaper during a single week included "Teen Indicted for Shooting Darts at Youth," "Schools Called Hazardous Places for Teens," "Temporary Cells May Ease Overcrowding at DuPage Youth Home," "Teenager Gets Life Term in Parents' Deaths," and "Police Hunt Teen Accused in Attack."

In the spring of 1995 the City of Wheaton Youth Task Force sponsored a Town Meeting in cooperation with the Wheaton Park District. The event was well attended and televised on our local cable channel. The results of this town meeting, the city's needs assessment, and the park district's random survey make it clear that we must find better ways to reach our teenagers. Communication is seen as one key in opening the door to youth involvement in recreational programs and services.

Our future plan of action includes the following promises:
» Identify programs which are workable.
» Provide job opportunities and volunteer opportunities.
» Be responsive to changing needs.
» Implement change gradually.
» Broaden our communication methods.
» Develop public and private sponsorships.
» Evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing.
» Share ideas with other communities.
» Minimize bureaucracy.
» And most important of all, involve youth in the planning process.

At a time when young people often feel alienated from and ignored by the adult world, park and recreation agencies which program for their specific interests and which provide worth-while job opportunities will be most effective in keeping teens away from the unwholesome temptations which lead them into trouble. We must be proactive with our programming, our job opportunities and our volunteer programs if we are to help the young people of today become the successful contributing citizens of tomorrow. This responsibility does not rest solely on the schools or the park districts or the churches. It is a responsibility which we all share ... because we care.

Ray Morrill, CLP, is the Superintendent of Recreation at the Wheaton Park District. Barbara Eaton, CLP, is Wheaton Park District's Public Information Coordinator.*

Illinois Parks & Recreation * May/June 1995 • 41

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