The walls of the Berkeley Youth Alternatives building on Allston and Bonar are covered in murals by past students. Photo: Eden Teller

When Kevin D. Williams first found himself at Berkeley Youth Alternatives, it was, he says, a “naked building.” His mother, Niculia Williams, now executive director of the nonprofit, which supports underserved youth, had joined the staff in 1988 and brought her family along to help. Though still a student at UC Berkeley, Williams “fit in where [he] could” between classes by cleaning up the building, tutoring or helping coach the basketball team.

Today, the bustling youth center is a brighter, better place, complete with kitchen, community garden and gymnasium. And Williams, who is now the agency’s associate director, was last week recognized as an inspiring youth advocate by the California Wellness Foundation. Williams was honored at the 11th Annual Champions of Health Professions Diversity Award ceremony in Los Angeles and received a cash award of $25,000.

Speaking to Berkeleyside last week, Williams said he was familiar with the California Wellness Foundation award, but was quite surprised when he received the call from the program director. The nomination process leaves nominees somewhat in the dark, he said. Williams speculated that the board looks at who’s engaged in the award requirement of “actively increasing the diversity and numbers of California’s health care workforce.”

After his early days helping out at the organization as a college student, Williams left to attend law school in Texas. In his absence the organization grew. It began receiving more outside attention and donations; notably, in 1992, the Golden State Warriors donated equipment for a 10-station computer lab and, more recently, in 2010, a team of volunteers from Google repainted the walls of the gymnasium. The program has benefited from two major renovations – one in 1995, and another in 1996 after a four-alarm fire damaged much of the building – and countless hours of work by staff and community members.

Kevin D. Williams accepted the Champions of Health Professions Diversity award from The California Wellness Foundation last Monday in Los Angeles. Photo: BYA

Now, as associate director, Williams said that, though he tries to stay involved in the day-to-day running of the organization, he spends 75-80% of his time doing administrative work.

“I keep my door closed so we can keep the doors open,” he said.

Williams’ work has become increasingly vital in the past few years as the city of Berkeley has been forced to cut funding for programs like Lady Hoops Against Teen Pregnancy and the Parks Youth Employment program.

To counteract the loss of money, BYA has partnered with other organizations, like the YMCA-PG&E Teen Center, Berkeley Alliance and the 2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth, as well as relying on fundraisers like its annual crab feed, which this year raised $15,000. With Proposition 30 passed into law in the 2012 election, Williams hopes to see more educational dollars coming in. In the meantime, he says the organization’s message to the city is: “Don’t cut us any further.”

Despite the cutbacks, children and teens continue to flock to BYA. Some are referred by their teachers, some by probation officers; others follow their friends who go to its programs or summer camps. As the organization matures – it celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 – parents who in their youth were involved with the non-profit in turn send their children to join the community. Summer employment opportunities bring in other young adults who might not have otherwise been drawn to the programs.

The Berkeley Youth Alternatives’ “high expectations” are a key part of their mission. Photo: Eden Teller
The Berkeley Youth Alternatives’ “high expectations” are a key part of their mission. Photo: Eden Teller

Williams said the biggest change he has seen in the kids since he’s been at Berkeley Youth Alternatives is the shift in their focus from education to employment. Many come seeking work to help their families, which is provided via job training and youth employment programs. However Williams said the organization “wants people to go on the path towards being highly educated.” Recently, the agency has focused on using job prospects as an incentive to do well in school in an attempt to swing the youths’ attention back to their education.

In spite of this change, the at-risk youth of 2013 remain similar to those of 2000, or 1990. They still need a lot of support emotionally, he said. The BYA Counseling Center, created to provide a base of support for at-risk youths, offers crisis counseling, help with anger management, a teen forum and more. The BYA parents’ association, too, has offered a source of support and information as it grows stronger. Families receive advice on how to better set boundaries, manage finances, and care for their children’s health. BYA has also partnered with the Alameda County Food Bank and, on the second Thursday of each month, passes out food to last a four-person family several weeks.

As BYA expands and offers more new services – it has 27 programs at last count – Williams said that the core mission of the organization is to bring together multiple voices to create change. “Diversity has never… [been] something that is seen as optional,” he said.

Youth program to close after 18 years for lack of funds (10.18.11)
Berkeley youth program gets temporary reprieve (07.01.11)

Eden Teller, a graduate of Berkeley High School, is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She will be attending Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, next year.

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Eden Teller is a freelance reporter, writer and amateur gardener. She began reporting for Berkeleyside as an intern in 2013 and continued her career with a B.A. in Media Studies from Macalester College...