Fifteen-year-old Marco Salgado focused on his task Thursday as he wiped down a faded and bare living room wall in a vacated home at Paso Robles’ Oak Park.
The soon-to-be Paso Robles High School sophomore was one of six kids in the Paso Robles Housing Authority’s new partnership with the Teens at Work program through the nonprofit Central Coast LINK.
The teen program is a dual effort the Housing Authority launched this summer to develop activities for the youth of Oak Park, a housing development for working-class families.
The move came after the city closed its decades-old recreation center in the heart of Oak Park because of budget cuts.
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A kindergarten through fifth-grade day center is the second half of the new approach. About 40 children participate in story time, painting and outdoor activities.
Since the 1990s, the city’s drop-in program at Oak Park catered to youth with a supervised place to hang out, play video games, listen to music and go on organized trips to places such as Disneyland and Magic Mountain.
But in a recent rash of budget cuts, the city had to cut the program to save about $23,000 per year and move its employees around to fill gaps elsewhere.
The Housing Authority has since partnered with the YMCA to run a revamped program in the same building for Oak Park’s younger kids. The walls now feature blue paint, art cubbies and large rugs for play.
“This is more structured to tap into their imagination in an educational setting,” YMCA Oak Park Director Artie Cooper said.
The program is not open to the surrounding neighborhoods like the first recreation center was, but Cooper said they’re looking to expand its capacity.
On Thursday, both groups continued what organizers say have been a successful few weeks since opening in late June.
The teen group spent the day preparing the vacant rental home for the next family.
Previous workdays, which pay minimum wage, have including sprucing up the neighborhood playground and practicing accounting skills.
“This is one of the most outstanding groups I have ever worked with,” Teens at Work co-founder Betian Webb said. “They’re paying attention to all the details and to the overall picture. When some need help, others pitch in.”
Salgado said the work makes him feel good about himself.
“I wanted to be helping the community, learning job skills and getting more practice,” he said of the program, which also teaches him interviewing skills.
Sixteen-year-old Scarlet Martinez said the work has a deeper meaning.
“I wanted to have something important to do in the summer,” she said as she took a break from cleaning and gulped down a bottle of cold water.
But both teens still miss the old recreation center, saying it was the place everyone visited to socialize and meet new friends.
Now that it’s closed, community partners are looking at alternative ways to engage older kids.
A LifeBound Teen Center that opened in the fall on 28th Street is on hold, but organizers plan to bring it back. There’s also the Boys & Girls Club, and the YMCA’s air-conditioned gym at Centennial Park is often full of teens playing basketball.
But 10-year-old Oak Park resident Michelle Nucico said she’s happy with the change. She has more chances to take turns with the markers, puzzles and toys than she had when the high school kids ruled the previous drop-in center.
“We can play Barbies and paint and do outdoor things,” she said with an excited rush of detail. “Today, we did water balloon fights, and sometimes we play tag and soccer.”