How Zenneah spent her summer vacation

Youth Institute helps at-risk kids shine a camera light on homeless teens in their Sacramento neighborhoods

Zenneah Benson says the plight of homeless teens hits close to home.

Zenneah Benson says the plight of homeless teens hits close to home.

Photo by Jill Wagner

The other kids on Zenneah Benson’s block can’t believe what she did this summer. “I’ve told them a hundred times about what I’m doing,” laughs the talkative 16-year-old, “but they still say ‘Nuh-uh! That’s not for real!’ ”

Dressed in baggy jeans and sneakers, and with a bandana wrapped around her head, Zenneah looks like a typical teen. She sounds like one too, as she gushes about her friends, her interests in journalism and poetry, and where she’d like to go to college.

Zenneah is not so typical, however, when you consider that this high-school junior works two summer jobs, shares a house with 13 other people, and lives in a neighborhood where most kids her age are more interested in skipping school and smoking pot than writing poetry.

The other kids in her neighborhood already know Zenneah as someone who does things differently“They call me crazy every day!” she saysbut they still can’t quite believe her latest gig. Zenneah spent the summer filming a public service announcement about homeless teens in Sacramento and earned $1,000 doing it.

Learn by doing
Zenneah and 30 other students from Grant and Luther Burbank high schools have been gathering every weekday for the last eight weeks in a modest building in Meadowview.

They meet in a spacious workroom filled with mismatched, donated furniture and cubicle workstations plastered with photos, posters of teen idols, and cartoons they’ve drawn. They’ve spent a lot of time here, but their real workspace is actually on the streets.

Toting three digital video cameras and eight sleek white Macintosh laptops, the kids can work virtually anywhere and stay connected by a wireless network they set up themselves. The group is ethnically diverse and includes A through F students. Their common link is that their home neighborhoods were identified as predominantly low-income, and each teen was recommended by a teacher or counselor as someone with potential who would benefit from an enriching summer experience.

These teens belong to the Youth Institute, a program sponsored by Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning, or CORAL. Funded by the James Irvine Foundation, CORAL is a seven-year effort to support academic achievement in two Sacramento communities, Meadowview and North Sacramento.

As the high-school component of CORAL, the Youth Institute aims to provide a select group of students with academic enrichment and high-quality work experience during the summer, while at the same time empowering them to make change in their community. The Youth Institute’s strategy, says program director Nick Kalbach, is to train students to use creative media to raise awareness about important issues in the community.

For this inaugural year of the Youth Institute, this meant producing a series of six short public service announcements (PSAs) for television to alert Sacramentans to the pressing problem of teen homelessness. Few realize that more than a thousand young people now live on Sacramento streets, according to estimates by advocates for the homeless, having run away from or lost their homes, evading Child Protective Services and the foster care system.

After confronting their own stereotypes of homelessness“I used to think that homeless people were all crazy old men!” says onethe Youth Institute students set out to learn about the problem and get the public thinking about its consequences.

For a group of students with little experience, the complex process of making a PSA was a challenge. The project began with research, combining old-fashioned trips to the library with visits to homeless service centers and “squats” in abandoned buildings where homeless teens hang out.

The Youth Institute teens interviewed homeless teens and invited them to their workroom to be guest speakers. They even gave the homeless teens disposable cameras to document a typical day in their lives.

The summer continued with lessons from a professional cinematographer on the fundamentals of filming and message development, and soon the Youth Institute teens could be found throughout Sacramento, choosing locations, setting up shots, and sometimes even editing their footage on the road using their portable laptops. Ultimately, the students’ completed PSAs will be seen on Access Sacramento and other local news stations.

Close to home
Program leaders initially had reservations about the Youth Institute students delving into the topic of homelessness. Says Kalbach, “Many who were involved questioned if it was the right choice, because many of the kids have a personal connection to someone who is on the street.

“It wasn’t like we were dealing with suburbanite kids from Elk Grove,” he adds. “Within the two communities that we picked kids from, it’s a real issue, and it’s prevalent in their community.”

It turns out there was a real reason to be concernedhomelessness is close to home for some of the Youth Institute kids. When junior Kathrine Wright was 11 years old, her family was homeless. Today she has a secure living arrangement, but for a time her parents and siblings slept and lived anywhere they could.

“I’ve stayed in a car. I’ve slept in a tent. We’d stay at friends’ houses, off and on. I slept in a shack. I’ve slept in a lot of places,” she says. When meeting the homeless teens as part of the Youth Institute project, Kathrine says, “It was hard to see … because I’ve felt what they’ve felt.”

The topic hit close to home for Zenneah, too. Though she’s never been homeless, she’s faced many challenges in her life, beginning with losing her mother at age 5. She’s thought about running away before, and people who know her wonder why she hasn’t already done it, given the constant chaos in her life.

“Fourteen people living in one house, hardly ever any food, constantly working two jobs and going to school … a lot of things that go on in my household I can’t handle. I don’t know how to handle it, but I do,” she says.

Though she perseveres, Zenneah can see how easily she could someday wind up with nowhere to stay. “Any day I could be one of those kids, if I decided to run away, or something happened to my dad and he lost his house.”

But contrary to what some thought, this connection to the issue has worked to benefit the Youth Institute teens and the project as a whole. When she first learned that she would be publicizing teen homelessness, Zenneah thought, “I have a lot of insights on this. … This subject really touches me.”

Moreover, she realized “the more that I can relate to it, the more emotion and affection that I’m gonna put into it, and the more work I’m gonna put into it. Compared to someone who didn’t care or know anything about it, I’ll put more energy into [publicizing this issue].”

Kathrine agrees: “I really want to tell people about this kind of thing because it’s a real issue and [my experiences] help me better understand it. I can actually understand where they’re coming from and can explain it better in the PSA.”

She describes how, when the Youth Institute teens visited a center for homeless youth, they met one homeless girl who appeared to resent their visit. “She was like ‘These kids don’t know what it’s like, they have no idea what’s going on,’” says Kathrine. “I really heard her, and [her story] bothered me.”

Kathrine understood how “when you’re in that situation … you’re defensive and insecure,” so she approached the homeless youth and started talking to her. “I was able to explain to her [how I had been homeless, too.] It helped me be more sympathetic to what’s going on.”

The two girls connected and began to talk more about the homeless teen’s experiences, her reasons for being on the street, and her attempts to keep a job without a normal place to sleep. Though it was initially somewhat controversial, Kalbach is glad that they pursued the topic of teen homelessness. “Their hearts are closer to the issues and I think they’re better able to represent the problem because they have that connectedness to it.”

“Like a big chain reaction”
As much as the teens have given of themselves to the project, the project has also given back to themnot only by improving their academic and job skills, but by providing important information that is directly relevant to their lives. Because of the PSA project, Zenneah knows a lot more facts and figures about teen homelessness than she used to. As she talks, it is clear that her research on the issue has sunk in at a personal level, making her rethink the idea of running away.

“If I know what’s gonna happen [on the streets],” she says, “then me running away has just been prevented. It’s just been stopped in the process.” Though no one in the Youth Institute is lecturing the teens on the dangers of running away, they’re clearly getting the message. Better yet, they’re passing it along.

“A couple of [kids in my neighborhood] wanted to run away from home, and I talked them out of it,” says Zenneah. Some of her friends tease Zenneah about her well-developed sense of responsibility and tell her to just “let them find out the hard way.”

But to this Zenneah replies, “Why? If something can be prevented then they won’t have to find out the hard way, or get hurt, or go down the wrong road and get in trouble.”

Kathrine seems to feel the same way. She too has told friends who are thinking of running away to think before they act. “If the situation’s really not that bad, I tell them just think about it, sleep on it, ’cause the streets are hard, especially if you’re out there by yourself. It’s not a good solution.”

As kids absorb the information, then pass it along, the program works “like a big chain reaction,” says Zenneaha much-needed chain reaction in neighborhoods that are full of troubled youth with too little direction from adults.

As the summer comes to an end, Zenneah is thinking about change even beyond the kids in her neighborhood. The Youth Institute experience has started her mind running with new ideas. Now that she’s experienced with filmmaking, she’s thinking about making a movie about her neighborhood. She’s also suggesting ways to make more public statements about homeless youth.

“Why don’t we go down to the Capitol and say something?” she asks. “Why don’t we go down there to raise awareness that way, too?”

And that, really, is the whole point of the Youth Institute: kids learning for their own sake, passing it to their friends and family, and then taking on bigger community issues that interest them. It’s all part of the plan as program leaders make future plans to add a journalism component and expand into additional TV and radio activities.

Kalbach envisions a small army of teens with cameras and recorders and computers, taking on important issues in their neighborhood and taking back control of their environment.

“If you just give these kids the skills and the resources, you will be very surprised with what they come up with. It’s awesome to watch. … We’d like our kids to take on projects year-round, to take on problems and make changes in Sacramento. The kids can get it done,” he says, “better than we can.”