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S.L. kicks off summer youth programs

North Shelter, Web site aim to build better lives

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Liberty Park is buzzing with activities this summer, and one in particular involves central-city youths. Children and city officials met this past week to officially open the newly renovated North Shelter and kick off the new YouthCity Web site.

The "flagship park" of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, as it was called by Rick Graham, director of Salt Lake City's Public Services Department, has been a "wonderful place for families to come and enjoy themselves and to recreate and to find a variety of activities that can strengthen them as individuals and also as families."

Liberty Park has been the anchor for Salt Lake City's YouthCity youth program for several years. Four other locations throughout the city also host after-school and summer programs for youths ages 9 to 14. The program is open to children of all economic backgrounds, but registration is limited.

"There are 87,000 kids between the ages of 7 and 12 in Salt Lake City. There are only six slots per 100 of these children — we have a long ways to go in our city, in our county and throughout this state," said Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. "We like to say that we stand for our children, that we're a family state, but we haven't been paying due attention to the needs of children for good, productive, nurturing, interesting places to go and things to do when our children are out of school."

Anderson is a longtime advocate of sponsoring social and educational experiences for youths. He works with various federal and community resources to fund such programs and to promote youth involvement in the community.

One such resource is Jerry Pruyne, a philanthropist who lives in Salt Lake City. Pruyne said he was also a victim of society at a young age, having 32 sets of parents by the time he was 7 years old.

YouthCity programs offer unique opportunities to children who are often labelled "at-risk." Pruyne said programs such as YouthCity changed his life.

"These are opportunities that are broad enough," he said, "It's not just a swimming lesson, or a horseback-riding trip or a tennis lesson — these programs have the ability to catch the uniqueness of a child."

Pruyne, who works in dentistry, has agreed to provide the children involved in the program with a new smile, or at least the dental care to get there.

"I've written several books, but I've never changed anybody's life like I have with a whiter, prettier smile," and resulting boost in self-esteem, Pruyne said.

The new Web site, www.YouthCity.com, provides easy access to information and registration systems, schedules and a chat area and links to YouthCity partner Web sites.

Elizabeth Robinson, YouthCity director of programming, said the most "coveted" class is capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that incorporates self-defense, dance, music and culture. YouthCity capoeira is taught at Liberty Park by world-champion fighter "Jamiaka."

"The kids choose their classes so they're learning what they like," Robinson said.

YouthCity at Liberty Park currently has 30 registered students and can accept up to 10 more for the summer program now in session. The second session begins July 12, and classes are held daily. Children are also provided with a free lunch by the local school lunch program.

"Kids are learning how to draw; they are swimming and they engage in marvelous mentoring relationships with adults who care about them," said Janet Wolf, YouthCity director.

She also said YouthCity is an excellent excuse for parents not to worry about their children. "There are plenty of things going to keep them busy all day."

"These opportunities not only provide them great places to be so they are not getting in trouble during their leisure hours — and we know that these kinds of programs cut down dramatically on drug use, on sexual activity among young people and on other kinds of crime — but these programs also help build better lives and stronger families and hence a stronger community in the future," Anderson said.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com