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Los Gatos Weekly; March 27, 2002

Teen Place

By Gloria I. Wang

The Outhouse creates a friendly, fun, safe environment where teenagers can be comfortable.

A loud, pulsing bass rips through the darkened room, making all the objects--and people--vibrate. In the glow of blinking white Christmas lights, some 80 teenagers are nodding, swaying and dancing to the beat. Some are dressed casually, while others are heavily made up and wearing theme costumes.

In one corner, a small stage is set up. The lead singer is a tall, thin young woman with short black hair and long bangs who plays guitar and speaks with a British accent. Her soft-spoken intros to her songs contrast sharply with the volume at which she screams, "Woo hoo!" Behind the singer are three instrumentalists; together, they make up the U.K. band kaitO, known for its pop/punk sound.

In an adjacent room, other adolescents are lounging on the couches, talking and laughing above the din from the next room.

What's different about this teen scene from other high school parties is the absence of harmful substances and behavior. The concert, one in a series of rock shows held at teen center The Outhouse in Los Gatos, must follow the facility's regulations: no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking, no bad language and no amorous behavior. "We tell the kids, 'Act like you should,'" says Lee Fagot, co-president of A Place for Teens, the organization that runs The Outhouse.

That's why the teenagers who smoke cigarettes do so in the parking lot, near the Los Gatos High School tennis courts--far from the watchful gaze of The Outhouse's adult chaperones. That's also why most of the rare instances of police problems are caused by out-of-towners, who usually try to enter while intoxicated, says Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police officer Michelle Stanfill. "[But] as far as it being a trouble place, no," Stanfill adds.

The night of March 1, when kaitO makes its debut in Los Gatos, there are no incidents at The Outhouse. The evening's show is unusually mellow, as the lineup of bands are less high-energy--"Even I like the music here tonight," chuckles Fagot--and there is a smaller, more subdued crowd than the average of 120 teenagers that normally attend a concert.

According to A Place for Teens Assistant Director Brendan Cronin, 25, the concerts are The Outhouse's most successful events. Some shows are so popular that approximately 400 kids are in the audience, with the line to purchase tickets extending out the door and well beyond the tennis courts, Cronin says.

For the past year, 22-year-old Saratoga resident Eric Fanali has booked all the shows. Fanali, whose production company is called Grand Fanali Presents, always charges $6 for tickets. That money goes to pay bills and purchase food and water for the two or more bands that play per night.

Concerts at The Outhouse take place almost every weekend. Fanali, a self-described music lover with a seemingly boundless amount of energy, typically books acts three or four months in advance. Those acts range from high school garage-type bands to more renowned groups from out of the area, such as kaitO. The concerts, advertised in local publications for a 21-and-under crowd only, draw students from local high schools other than Los Gatos and Leigh.

Nineteen-year-old Arthur Culang, drummer and keyboardist for the East Bay band Robert + Karen, says he loves playing at The Outhouse and working with Fanali.
"It's really a safe, fun, friendly environment," Culang says of The Outhouse. "I would leave my kids here and be OK with it."

The concerts and other activities at The Outhouse are "giving kids something to do besides drugs," Culang adds.

A Place for Teens organizers plan programs that benefit teens and the larger community. In its early days, activities included a pool tournament that pitted students against police officers and a tea for local senior citizens, something Fagot says the group is hoping to bring back. After the Columbine shootings in 1999, the center held forums for students and parents on school violence.

This year, A Place for Teens will hold two college bus tours for high school seniors. According to Cronin, a three-day tour of Northern California schools attracted high schoolers from not only Los Gatos but also Saratoga and Campbell, at a cost of $90 per student.

The next bus tour--coordinated in conjunction with Southwest YMCA--will take place in spring. The five-day excursion to Southern California will stop at many of the prominent universities and include a day trip to Disneyland.

Perhaps the event most visible to the community is the annual Great Los Gatos Food Fest, held every summer in Town Plaza Park. Local restaurants provide samples of their specialties for $1 each. All profits go to A Place for Teens, since the organization must rely on grants and donations to meet its yearly operating budget, this year approximately $88,000.

The Outhouse is often the site for events such as CPR training days, school club socials and meetings for other nonprofit organizations such as the Boy Scouts. There are also events geared toward kids with an interest in computer games and days in which volunteers help spruce up the town by cleaning trails and painting murals.
The main purpose of The Outhouse, however, is not the events or activities that it provides: it is its mere existence.

Built in 1994, The Outhouse is filled with sagging couches, a large-screen television, a snack bar, new iMacs, arcade games, a pool table and a Ping-Pong table. The facilities provide a safe place for teenagers, where they can feel at home.

"Teens can come and, under adult supervision, have a place they can call their own," says Fagot, whose daughter used the facility when she was in high school. "It's the kind of place where teens can put their feet up on the furniture ... you can throw things at the trash can, instead of into the trash can, and nobody will yell at you."
"They come and go as they please," Cronin says. "We want to make things as open-ended as possible so teens can drop by and take off when they want. I supervise. I observe, to a certain extent. I don't say 'Do this, do that, do this, do that.'"

To that end, The Outhouse is open from 2 to 6 p.m. on weekdays as an after-school hangout for students; Cronin is at the facility from 10 a.m. to closing every day. To encourage more student use, the center does not charge membership fees or require sign-ups for any of its machinery, except for the computers. For example, Cronin says, there is a group of skateboarders that regularly uses the television and VCR to pop in a documentary about punk rock--which is just fine.

Because A Place for Teens is an organization independent of any existing government or nonprofit agency, it depends on the community for funds. The town gives a certain amount in grant money--this fiscal year, $2,000--but both Cronin and Fagot emphasize that the center is in no way under the umbrella of the town.

"The big thing with the town is, they really want us to be a membership facility," Cronin says. But that goes against the freedom that the center wants to give its participants, he adds.

Fundraising efforts such as the Food Fest, a March 24 phone-a-thon, and letters of solicitation to the community often net the response that the town should pay for The Outhouse's expenses, since the perception is that the facility is owned by either the town or the Los Gatos-Saratoga Recreation Department.

"None of that's true. And we're constantly trying to raise money," Fagot says.

The community does its part by providing in-kind donations. Local businesses will give discounts when they know their customer is A Place for Teens. When The Outhouse was built in the early 1990s, contractors donated time and materials to the building process, and the town waived permit fees. An eclectic mural that covers one entire wall of The Outhouse was done by kids who were in trouble for spraying graffiti around town. The project was completed under the guidance of a professional muralist.

"People in the community are usually pretty receptive when we need something," Cronin says.

And these days, when maintenance needs to be done on The Outhouse, members of the community show up for workdays in which they paint, hammer and clean.

Most of the kids who hang out at The Outhouse are ninth- and 10th-graders who stay at the facility while they wait for their parents to pick them up; upperclassmen don't usually come because they take off in their cars. From past experience, A Place for Teens staff has found that middle schoolers and high schoolers don't mix particularly well in social settings, and that high school students stayed away from The Outhouse because they associated it with the middle school population. As a result, each event is geared toward a certain age group--not both at the same time.

According to Cronin, the numbers have gone "way up" this year, to where there are about 20 students using the facility daily. There is variability, however; more students come on the days when free, donated food arrives.

A key component of A Place for Teens is its 20-member board, consisting of adults and students. Fagot's fellow co-presidents are Los Gatos High School seniors Natasha Wilder and Asha Shivaji. Each teen board position has an adult counterpart. "It may not be the most efficient way, but for what we're trying to achieve, I think it works pretty well," Fagot says.

Both Wilder and Shivaji became involved in A Place for Teens while they were seventh-graders at Fisher Middle School. "It's really exceptional in that you have such an age range," Wilder says, referring to the middle schoolers who work side by side with the adult board members. "Everyone is on such an equal playing field because everyone has something different to offer."

Wilder says that it's difficult to attract upperclassmen to the facility because the perception is that it's for middle school students. "It's pretty sad because students don't realize they have a place to go," Wilder says. "They get a bad rap from hanging around in town."

"On the one hand, the community encourages academics and going to prestigious schools," says Wilder, referring to the heavier, more serious side of student life. But on the other hand, the town doesn't find outlets for teenagers to express their lightheartedness and pursue individualism, which is what The Outhouse offers.

As a board member since 1998, Shivaji has been thrust into situations that she wouldn't experience from other extracurricular activities. She has had to go out and personally ask for funding from local businesses and residents, and she has attended Los Gatos Town Council meetings in budget discussions.

A Place for Teens is always looking for creativity in events and planning, and that's what Shivaji loves. "It's the possibility of always being able to do something new," Shivaji says. "It's the potential that's exciting."
"Being on the board has been such an experience in terms of growing my leadership capabilities," says Adriana Anavitarte, board member and last year's co-president.

This year, the board is trying to develop a strategy for outreach, with the help of some of its newest adult board members. In addition, the board hopes to strengthen its existing leadership team by receiving training from Southwest YMCA in fundraising and other skills.

Dick Strayer and Sally Wilder--Natasha's mother--are both management consultants who joined the board in the fall. Strayer guided the two co-presidents through running a recent retreat for board members. "They did a better job of leading a strategy implementation session than I've seen most executives do," Strayer says.

According to Strayer, A Place for Teens is aiming for "more overt outreach" in the near future by offering free bagels and Starbucks coffee every day (instead of the current twice a week), installing several more televisions and offering after-school programs. That would draw not only more participants, but also new board members. "We're looking for people who really want to roll up their sleeves and do something in the teen center," Strayer says.

On April 4, A Place for Teens will hold a potluck and informational meeting for potential leaders who have been identified through school staff. Interested parties, however, can contact the organization for more information. "Here are these kids who really want to do something and are willing to get adults and parents involved," Strayer says. "I really encourage adults to participate."

"Unlike philanthropy, this is an opportunity to be involved directly in a way that affects people's lives," Wilder says.

Strayer first started helping out with A Place for Teens several years ago when his daughter Gina was involved with some of its events. He strongly believes in The Outhouse's vision and goals. "You're accepted there and there's a home for you and there are other kids for you to become friends with," Strayer says. "We're trying to create an environment of, 'We're here to listen, not tell you what to do.'"

"In the broader community," Strayer says, "we have a negative rap, hopefully generated more historically than by current events."

Wilder says being on the board empowers students, as it has done for her daughters Natasha and Chloe, and teaches them that they can make a difference. "It's a different way of approaching life, when you're feeling empowered," Wilder says.

The co-presidents learn to lead, to listen, to build an agenda before a meeting and to follow Robert's Rules of Order, the standard manual on parliamentary procedure.
Another recent addition to the board is newly appointed treasurer Betsy Rafael, four-year resident of Los Gatos and CFO of Aspect Communications.

Although Rafael has no connection to Los Gatos High School students, she says she went to several board meetings and events. "I just thought, 'Gosh, there must be something I could do to give back,'" she says.
Rafael says the position is a perfect melding of her professional background and an opportunity to interact with the younger generation. She hopes to set up a process for the finances that will last even when board members leave.

"Certainly, success to me is ... setting up a sustainable process that's manageable and transferable for a long time," Rafael says.

Along with the board members, there are also middle school representatives who attend meetings, such as Fisher eighth-grader Vikram Shivaji.

"When I started going [to The Outhouse], I really saw how good of a facility it was for the kids. When I go to high school, I know that I'll hang out there after school and do homework with my friends there," Shivaji says.
And then there is Lee Fagot, who started helping out in 1996 after he dropped his daughter off at an Outhouse dance and hung around, asking questions about the facility.

"What really did it for me were some kids who used to be at Los Gatos High School," Fagot says. When those kids returned home from college, he adds, they spoke of the sense of belonging they felt at The Outhouse, and how it kept them out of engaging in risky behavior. Because of that experience, Fagot became more heavily involved with A Place for Teens, even though his daughter is now 20 and graduated from high school a long time ago.
"I would've killed for something like this when I was in high school," Fagot says.

"Lee is just the heart of this place. He goes above and beyond what a board member would do. He's an amazing man," Cronin says. "Everything that we need done or taken care of, he steps up."

"Lee is like the dad of The Outhouse," Asha Shivaji adds.

A Place for Teens co-president Lee Fagot listens intently during a board meeting at The Outhouse; behind him is assistant director Brendan Cronin.

As the only paid staff member at The Outhouse, Cronin was promoted to assistant director from program manager in January after previous director Robin Sampson was laid off due to budget restrictions. Cronin now works two jobs in one: he puts together the programming, works on the budget, writes grant requests, networks in the community and takes care of administrative duties.

Having run camps and classes at Camp Campbell and the Southwest YMCA, Cronin says he has found that he loves working with teens. Cronin says his young age is beneficial to his job. "I'm not so far off that I don't know what's cool and not cool," Cronin says.

Shivaji agrees. "He really senses what the teens want," she says. "Without his excitement and enthusiasm, a lot of things wouldn't get done."

The board's plan to strategize its outreach and programming is much needed. Some, like police officer Michelle Stanfill, say the facility isn't used much because it needs to be marketed better.

"If you could attract the more central crowd of what is perceived as the popular kids," Stanfill says, "more kids would start coming." Stanfill says she has been told that more students don't hang out at The Outhouse because they don't think they can have fun there, partly because it's practically on school grounds.

Yet Stanfill says there is definitely a need for facilities like The Outhouse, and that "it's a great place, and it's a good concept."

"I think what they provide is positive," says Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Captain Duino Giordano. "Anything to do with providing services that are lacking elsewhere for teens is a good thing."

Robert + Karen band member Arthur Culang says The Outhouse fulfills another need with its concert series, and that is a musical one. "In this day and age, there are so few musical outlets, especially for people of different ages," Culang says. Without places such as The Outhouse, younger bands must look to bars as venues for shows.

And what Culang is concerned about is finding arenas for bands to play their music. As Culang speaks, kaitO's follow-up act, San Jose band Xiu Xiu, plays the strains of its first song on what appears to be an ethnic gong-type instrument.

"I gotta go," Culang says, standing up. "I want to listen to the music."


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