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Ventura County

Youths Looking for Summer Activities Face a Great Divide

Recreation: Programs are more plentiful in more-affluent east Ventura County than in the west. Difference is reflected in crime statistics, police say.

July 02, 2001|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years there has been a glaring gap between youth recreational opportunities in the white-collar cities of eastern Ventura County and the working-class west.

And there are few signs that the situation is changing.

The gap reveals itself most clearly when school is out for the summer, and with teenagers who are too old to be packed off to day camp but young enough to benefit from supervision.

"There is a disparity that remains to this day, and it has not gotten better," said Oscar Gonzalez, a Ventura attorney and community leader who grew up in the barrios of Fillmore and Santa Paula.

The battle against teenage boredom--often linked to drug use and juvenile crime--is one that recreation officials have been fighting for decades.

No city has figured out how to engage all teens, but the opportunities for youths to spend idle time constructively are much more abundant in the east county cities than those in the west.

In Oxnard, for example, the city spends about $25 per resident on recreation, while in Fillmore the figure is less than $12. The per-resident spending in Thousand Oaks, meanwhile, is about $62.

Though spending comparisons can be difficult because of differences in the way cities and special districts administer their budgets, the reality of what more money can buy is clear.

East county libraries are bigger, better and open longer hours. Parks are bright and well manicured, with fountains and streams. Lights in the sprawling ball fields actually work.

"It's obvious we need many more activities for teenagers and young adults all over the western part of Ventura County," said John Flynn, who represents Oxnard on the county Board of Supervisors. "It comes down to affluence."

Scott Mitnick, assistant city manager in Thousand Oaks, said he believes all cities in Ventura County provide basic recreational services--from community centers to sports leagues. But affluence does offer extras, he said, including skateboard parks, plush teen centers and vast, well-maintained athletic fields.

"It's very clear that an affluent community like Thousand Oaks is able to provide facilities, services and programs at a higher level," Mitnick said. "This community does put a high priority on activities for youth and is willing to put its money where its mouth is."

So are many of the parents, who have higher incomes on average than their counterparts in the west county.

Thirteen-year-old Lauren Shanklin of Thousand Oaks, for example, said her parents pay for any activity she's interested in. Her summer will be spent at a soccer camp hosted by Pepperdine University, taking classes at the teen center or hiking on some of the city's nearby wilderness trails.

"There's lots to do," she said. "Soccer keeps me very busy."

Jiles Sanabria, 14, of Ventura said that if city recreation programs and classes were free, he'd be much more likely to participate.

"You can't be hitting your parents up for money all summer," he said. "That just won't work."

Even if west county teenagers have the money, the facilities aren't always there.

Heidi Hanson of Ventura is trying to keep busy, which is why the 14-year-old signed up to play on a field hockey team this summer. But she has to travel to the east county just to practice on turf fields, which are too expensive for her own city to maintain.

The same is true for Gonzalez and his two boys in Santa Paula. As a working professional, he can afford to sign them up for activities, but they're not offered in his community. What's worse, he said, no one seems to be orchestrating an effort to change things.

"They don't have the day camps, the skateboard parks, the organized baseball leagues, the public swimming pools or any central place to go," he said. "It pains me when I go by Las Piedras Park in Santa Paula, and the only thing going on is the police substation."

Meanwhile in Moorpark, teenage rock musicians compete in city-sponsored battle-of-the-band contests and jam sessions.

Each month, there are skateboarding contests and Friday night dances, complete with food and deejays, which draw hundreds of teenagers. And the city recently agreed to fund a bus that will take teenagers to Zuma Beach twice a week for only $1 each way.

At the Conejo Recreation and Park District's teen center in Thousand Oaks, there's a spacious gym for basketball and dances. There's an arcade with video games, and pool tables and activity rooms where a long list of fee-based classes for teens are offered each day. At Borchard Community Center, a large new skateboard park is swarming with teenage boys.

"There's never a shortage of stuff to do," said 17-year-old Joe Domingo while shooting hoops in the teen center gym. Growing up in Thousand Oaks, he's spent countless hours there when he could have been at home, bored. "I think we're really lucky to have this place."

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