“Gaaaaaaaaah! That’s cold!” wailed Carla Vega, a graduating senior from the R.U.T.H. (Resilience, Unity, Transformation, Hope) YouthBuild program in Canoga Park. The teen laughed, picked up her own squirtgun and retaliated against her friend and fellow senior, Mario Lima.
The pair were part of a group of 16 at-risk teens and four CSUN students that traveled to Castaic Lake with the university’s student-run Outdoor Adventures program for a day of kayaking, paddleboarding and fun in the sun.
CSUN’s College of Health and Human Development (HHD) runs the Boating Instruction and Safety Center on the lower portion of the man-made lake, part of a state park. The idyllic location on the park’s “Paradise Cove” boasts a sandy beach, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), wakeboarding and more.
“Welcome to Castaic!” exclaimed Erin Eiholzer, boating center manager, welcoming the teens and CSUN students to the lakeshore. “We don’t have anything here that will hurt you. We don’t have sharks. Unless you saw Dinocroc (a 2004 horror flick), which was filmed here. We do have fish in the lake, and there are bees in the grass — so please wear your shoes when you’re walking back and forth.”
Eiholzer polled the group about their level of swimming experience and time in the outdoors. One teen said he’d never been on a large body of water (lake, ocean, river) before the June 4 adventure.
Eiholzer and her staff of lifeguards, all CSUN students, taught the teens how to properly don a lifejacket, carry a kayak paddle and sit on the watercraft.
“We are not rocking the boat today,” she said, grinning. “We are not capsizing or tipping the boats. Also, if you’re using the SUP, make sure you feel comfortable falling into the water — because you will fall in a lot!”
The graduating seniors were only too happy to fall in the water, which measured at a comfortable 72 degrees, a little warmer than the air temperature just before lunchtime. It was tough to tell who was having more fun — the teenagers or their young leaders from CSUN. The sounds of laughter, splashing and cheering echoed across the lake.
Part of CSUN’s Department of Recreation and Tourism Management, the boating center opened in 1976 and serves nearly 11,000 people annually with community service programs and activities, as well as classes for college credit and noncredit. In addition to boating, water safety education and wakeboarding, the center offers water skiing, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, canoeing and nature walks.
As part of the university’s Neighborhood Partners in Action (NPA) program with Canoga Park, the college has worked for several years to send CSUN undergraduates and graduate students into the Canoga Park community to lend expertise, manpower and energy — and to learn by doing. The program teams students, faculty and staff with more than 30 community agencies to improve the lives of San Fernando Valley families.
In fall 2012, CSUN launched the NPA program with Canoga Park, a community of about 60,000 in the northwest corner of the Valley, through the Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing.
“If you want to assist a community in moving itself forward, the chances of helping an open community are greater,” said program coordinator Craig Finney. “Canoga Park was opening their doors. … As [outgoing Provost] Harry Hellenbrand puts it, ‘We need to be stewards of place.’”
Canoga Park is a culturally diverse community, heavily Latino and economically challenged in some areas, Finney said.
“We go to each agency and ask them, ‘What is it you need? What kind of resources do you have? Where would you like to go?’” Finney said. “We’re not trying to go in and ‘fix’ Canoga Park. We’re letting Canoga Park figure out what it needs to grow. We’re a neighbor, long term. At the end, we’re trying to increase quality of life, and we’re also giving CSUN students and staff opportunities for community service.”
R.U.T.H. YouthBuild is just one NPA partner agency. The organization provides a high school education, job training, counseling and leadership development to teens and young adults in Canoga Park. The young people that YouthBuild serves have faced barriers and challenges including growing up in the foster care system and single-parent homes, and struggling with addiction, domestic violence, trying to move on from gang involvement, and living as undocumented teens. They come to YouthBuild because they are ready to turn their life around, said Michelle Miranda, founder and executive director.
During the academic year, CSUN students provide math and science tutoring to YouthBuild participants, with the help of the organization’s credentialed staff. Many of those teachers received their credentials at CSUN, Miranda said.
“Our young people also can make visits to CSUN, to see what college life is like and that it is attainable,” Miranda said. “A lot of them see the barriers before them, and this really bridges that gap — especially when they see familiar faces.”
Finney and professor Connie White have provided strategies that have helped the YouthBuild staff in meeting the diverse needs of their students, Miranda said. Mentors from CSUN’S MOSAIC program (through the Department of Sociology) work with the high school students throughout the academic year to set goals and provide encouragement and support.
Other CSUN participants have included professor Veda Ward, whose recreation and tourism management class visited with the students. The undergraduates sparked hope and excitement in the teens about their potential to attend college in the future, Miranda said.
“I really appreciate President [Dianne F.] Harrison’s initiative to focus a lot of CSUN’s work on specific communities,” she said. “We’re establishing a good, solid foundation so we can serve the community for years to come.”
The seniors from R.U.T.H. YouthBuild will graduate from the organization’s charter high school on June 22, in a commencement celebration at the Hilton in Woodland Hills. The students come from all over the San Fernando Valley, some from as far as Sun Valley, said Vanessa Solache, mentor director for the program, who chaperoned the class trip.
As NPA participants — on the CSUN campus, across Canoga Park and in the great outdoors — look to the future, they are developing plans to touch even more families and students through the university and its agency partners, Finney said. And the future is bright.
“We can have CSUN students come and inspire young people who’ve had the flame go out,” Miranda said. “The community comes in and gives them time, inspires them and gives them hope. I can’t put a dollar amount on that. We have exceeded our expectations.”
For more on the aquatic center at Castaic Lake, visit the website.