Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a five-part series on the state of nonprofit organizations and how they navigate a city that is experiencing a historic economic boom, housing crisis and widening income gap.
Sunday: The Arc
Tuesday: AIDs Legal Referral Panel
Today: Real Options for City Kids
Sunday: Compass Family Services
It's briefly quiet in late afternoon on a hill above San Francisco's most violent housing projects. But then suddenly, more than 130 young teenagers rush into the cafeteria of Visitacion Valley Middle School for snacks, before breaking off into smaller groups to do homework and activities.
It's a loud and jovial atmosphere, but perhaps only in the sense that for some of these students, it's far better than walking home.
Without an after-school program, most of these kids would be unleashed on the streets of The City's southeast side without adult supervision. Many of the students come from homes with negative adult influences — and at least one member of the after-school program witnessed the murder of a man standing next to him at a bus stop.
Less than 5 miles away, San Francisco's historic economic boom is roiling along — but it might as well be a different world.
Of course, the students and their mentors at a San Francisco nonprofit known as Real Options for City Kids — or ROCK — are well aware of The City's resurgence, they just don't feel like they're part of it.
While many nonprofits in San Francisco are being stretched by the blunt realities of a housing crisis brought on by a rapid influx of tech industry wealth in the past five years or so, it's business as usual at ROCK.
“It hasn't really changed anything for them, at least in this neighborhood,” said Lota Gaetos, ROCK's middle school coordinator. “Only about half the households have computers and the Internet. They're not tech savvy so they don't have jobs that benefit from that.”
Curt Yagi, ROCK's executive director, said he wishes the tech industry would get more involved with teaching skills in the after-school program so that local students could some day have a chance at well-paid local jobs. Any additional computer skills would also help in their current schooling, he said, especially considering that state standardized testing is now digital.
“I'm always trying to reach out in that direction; even though it's a pain to get out here, I wish people would come out,” Yagi said of downtown companies. “We'd love to have some public-private partnerships that are meaningful, and not just for show.”
Yagi said the poverty in the area has forced many families to relocate to the East Bay, which is detrimental to his program because he wants ROCK to start working with the students from when they are in elementary school until they begin high school.
Still, some of ROCK's participants are hopeful despite their surroundings, said Corinne Wong, another coordinator for the middle school program.
“They believe that they have a good academic future, and I do hear about going to college sometimes, which I love,” Wong said. “There are some kids who don't have high expectations for themselves because they don't have high expectations from the people around them. They realize what is going on here, they know the things they are dealing with. But they dream big, which is great.”
Ideally, Yagi would like to see students in the southeast neighborhoods get a chance to benefit from San Francisco's vast intellectual capital, but without being directly adjacent to the high rents and other income disparity problems that come with The City's rapid commercial success.
“This is kind of the forgotten neighborhood,” Yagi said. “But at the same time, I don't want to see people moving here and the gentrification of this neighborhood. There are always other ways to get the benefits down here. The tech world seems so busy, I just think people forget to do that. Even if it's just donating money.”