Ask anyone who works for Dave Kaplan at the Chinatown YMCA. They'll tell you he's got big ideas. Right now, one of those ideas is beginning to take shape inside the Two Bridges Community Center, which the YMCA has been running for nearly a year.
Kaplan is executive director of the Chinatown YMCA, based in the Houston Street Center (at Houston and the Bowery).
Back in February, he was asked to temporarily take over the Two Bridges facility, one of 25 community centers scheduled for closure due to NYC Housing Authority budget cuts. Recently, NYCHA and the Department of Youth and Community Development made the arrangement more permanent, awarding the YMCA a three-year contract to operate Two Bridges.
In a walk-through at the center last month, Kaplan told me about his ambitious plans to address some of the community's most critical needs. Located in a large housing development at 286 South Street, the community center is easy to miss (improved signage will be going up soon). The afternoon I visited, kids were quietly working on art projects. In a separate room, teens were playing pool. In a small office, Kaplan was meeting with the director of a Chinatown dance studio about setting up YMCA-sponsored programs in the new year.
But here's Kaplan's dilemma. In spite of a strong desire in the community for more programs to engage at-risk teens and young adults, the contract the YMCA was just awarded (perhaps unwittingly) makes it very difficult to focus on older kids. That's because the city will be evaluating Kaplan's management of the center based, primarily, on its services for young children. The Department of Youth Services is relentlessly focused on "measurable results." Program operators, for example, are rewarded for increasing attendance levels. The bottom line: it's a whole lot easier to demonstrate "success" in serving 5 year olds than teenagers.
Kaplan says he believes in the value of monitoring results, He notes that the city has, separately, earmarked funding for at-risk teens. And he's confident they are dedicated to helping young people across New York. But, at the same time, he believes there are creative ways to serve kids of all ages. Before coming to the Chinatown YMCA, he worked for the Greenwich Village Youth Council, running programs for at-risk teens. In the past year, he served on a special youth advisory board created by former City Councilmember Alan Gerson. So Kaplan knows what it takes to help kids battling to stay clear of gangs, drugs and violence. In the next few weeks he'll lay the groundwork for a program, at least partially independent of the Two Bridges center, to engage teens one-on-one.
Kaplan has teamed up with another member of the advisory panel, Jeffrey Solomon, a psychologist and youth counselor. Working together, they plan to tailor job training programs, extra-curricular activities and other services to meet the needs of individual teenagers. Kaplan says executives at the YMCA are enthusiastic about the idea. At their annual gala, YMCA officials expressed pride in the efforts Kaplan has already undertaken to engage older, at-risk kids on the Lower East Side.
Kaplan believes the program will benefit from close ties to the Two Bridges Community Center. But, at the same time, it will be unencumbered by a system that doesn't always serve the best interests of the kids who need the most help.