In 2010, the City of Eureka, California's Recreation Division made the decision to step up its game when it came to serving teenagers in its community.
“The teen population is a challenging group to market to,” says Brian Millett, who oversees the city’s youth programs. “We really wanted to provide innovative programming that would go beyond homework help and basketball; quite frankly, we wanted to do something that could compete with driving and dating.”
Eureka Recreation started off by rebranding its teen program as “the G.U.L.C.H.,” (Growing Unity, Leadership, Community & Health) and kicked off its new direction by offering free monthly events, including the city’s first-ever teen skateboard competition. “That was the event that really got our name out there in the community,” Millett says. “From there, we just kept trying new things to build on that momentum.”
The turning point for G.U.L.C.H. came when Millett was having a conversation with one of his staff members, who happened to moonlight as a local hip hop artist. “We started talking about the power and influence of music, and ended up developing a music program where teens learned to write lyrics, produce beats, and record their original songs on professional equipment.” Teens had their songs featured on local radio stations, and some even performed live on stage at local performance venues.
On the heels of the success of their music program, G.U.L.C.H. expanded into the world of film. “We tapped into the skills and passions of our staff and discovered one of our youth leaders had a previous life as an award-winning filmmaker, and within weeks we developed a curriculum and launched a teen filmmaking workshop,” Millett says.
This workshop set the stage for one of G.U.L.C.H’s biggest moments when Hollywood filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who was in Eureka shooting a movie, made a surprise visit to G.U.L.C.H. “We had a room full of aspiring teenage filmmakers, having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pick the brain of someone who has reached the ultimate level of success in moviemaking,” Millett says. “It was very inspiring and a great reflection of how far the program had come.”
The secret to G.U.L.C.H’s success has been the people, and the quality of staff isn’t something that happened by accident.
“Eureka Recreation invests a lot in our staff,” Millett explains. “We are very selective with our hiring process, and we provide ongoing training and the tools to set staff up for success. Our staff are identified as VIPs—which stands for Very Important Players, because they play a very important role in the lives of youth in our community. They are amazing role models who create a fun and positive environment where teens want to be.”
Today, G.U.L.C.H. runs a twice-a-week program in a facility of its own that features a skatepark, disc golf course, filmmaking, music production, dance groups, and more.
“We have far surpassed any expectations that we initially had,” Millett says, “and we’re very excited to continue to provide a platform where teens can express themselves in whatever form of passion they have, and feel genuinely listened to by the adults in the program.”
For more information or to contact the G.U.L.C.H., visit www.facebook.com/gulchteenprogram.
Donna Woodis the co-author of Organic Play: A Trail Guide to Changing the World by Transforming the Way We Live, Work & Play. She is the Recreation Manager for the City of Eureka, California, and currently teaches a Recreation Leadership class at Humboldt State University (firstname.lastname@example.org).