A Denver youth center provides a creative outlet and a gang-neutral environment for city kids

At 6 p.m. the front doors of The Spot swing open to the night. A cluster of figures jostle their way inside. Wearing a dark cap, Jayson Schale moves quickly to the graffiti-splashed break-dance room. A boombox blasts hip-hop.

On a huge section of white linoleum, Jayson upends the constraints of gravity. As other dancers watch, he takes his body to the far edge of feathery weightlessness.

Spinning swiftly, he balances on his elbows or, incredibly, on the backs of his hands or head.

"You make up your own moves," he says later, as if innovation is the octane of his amazing moves.

David DeForest Stalls, founder of The Spot, a youth center in the inner city, finds an echo in this kind of balancing act. "It took me nine months to find this building," he says of the two-story brick structure, a former film studio in a grungy but gang-neutral downtown area. "I talked to over 90 property owners.

Even when I could pay the rent, they wouldn't consider us when I told them what it was for."

Mr. Stalls ended the march of landlord rejections by being innovative: With the financial help of his board of directors, he bought the property, and created a program that now attracts 60 to 70 youths five nights a week.

Anyone age 14 to 24 is welcome at The Spot. No background checks. No waivers to sign. Leave gang affiliations outside. No mandatory anything except consistent, total respect when you enter, and a willingness to take advantage of what the place uniquely offers. The center has become a gold mine of trust and opportunity to many youths, and a haven from the streets and troubled homes.

Step inside The Spot and you quickly wonder why no one else has done this before: pull together under one roof a collection of hands-on media learning experiences for young folks.

Here, they have access to a computer lab with desktop publishing; broadcasting studios for DJs; music studios to make CDs; rooms where they can write, edit, or take photographs for a full-color magazine called Inner 303; or create graffiti-style art for Web sites or the walls of The Spot.

And always, there are two floors on which to break dance until they drop. Many nights there is also food, poetry readings, or speakers. Older volunteers are ready to talk or offer insights into problems at home or on the streets. It's a place young people can't forget because they are respected and helped.

Doin' Thangz and his friend, Blaccat, are seated in a studio with CD covers attached to the walls. Both have been involved in making CDs. "This is a good place," says Doin'. "Before, I was just out there, I was just wilding, doing a lot of not-the-right stuff. Now I'm focused, and want to help this place get more exposure, to expand and get a distribution company. That's our goal, to get CDs out, perform live, travel, and represent The Spot, the place that gave us our first opportunity."

"You can get your GED here too," says Jennifer Johnson, The Spot's program manager, "and we'll pay you $125 as a reward. In the last class, 20 youths got their GED. We also have a photography lab, and just recently started a pilot program with Colorado Capital Initiatives, a non-profit that helps people start businesses. One of our youths is starting a clothing business, another wants to start a hip-hop magazine, and another wants to start a college magazine."

Another measure of success happened just after the shootings at nearby Columbine High School. Stalls was invited to help the community there create a youth center that was up and going in 30 days.

Respect comes first

"There is so much fear of young people," says Stalls, a former defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, and two-time Super Bowl champion "You have to genuinely respect this age group; otherwise they won't give you the time of day."

When The Spot first opened, it was a kind of coffee shop, a place to hang out and be cool. But few youths walked in the door. When some of the young people told Stalls he needed a break-dance floor, graffiti murals on the walls, and a mike for freestyle rapping, he listened and made adjustments.

"It just grew and grew from there," says Ms. Johnson.

Because of his pro-football career, Stalls says he knows the violence facing many youths at home or on the streets of Denver, a city with a number of gangs. "My football experience as a violence perpetrator has a lot to do now [with] how I can relate to young women and men where violence is a part of their life," he says. "It's something they have to survive and try not to be perpetrators. In five years we haven't had anybody hurt, and we have attracted the young people we wanted to attract. Yeah, we have tension and conflict some nights here, but we move quickly to deal with it."

Stalls walks a fine line between challenging young people and driving them away.

"OK, they come in and sing rap," he says, "and they say the "F" word three or four times in a sentence. Are you willing to negotiate with them to say it once instead of four times? That is the risk. If you're not willing to take the risk, then you're not truly respecting the needs of the kids."

The Spot's annual budget has grown to $450,000 with a paid staff of seven. Part of the funding comes from the state under a crime-prevention bill. But most comes from private funds and donations. In May or June, The Spot will publish a frank book, "Why Keep Tryin' " aimed at street kids.

Moving little big mountains

"It looks chaotic when you walk in, but it's controlled chaos," says Johnson of the center. "Kids like it because of the freedom and trust. You want to create the moment when the kid comes to you and opens his or her heart and decides to tell me their mother is dying. If I had said at first, 'Come in my office and talk,' they wouldn't do it. But if I say, 'There's this cool studio you can use, and break dancing, and computers,' they say, 'Cool, and what do you do here?' "

If someone arrives drunk or on drugs, they are disinvited. "I tell them we don't hate them, and we aren't mad at them," says Johnson. "But come back tomorrow when you are free of that."

Jamie Sloan, The Spot's music coordinator, has been a staff member for two years. "We have had nine CDs created and released here," she says. "Some of the guys got them [placed] in music stores." Why does she stay? "I never had this as a teen," she says. "This is like a family, and we pay attention. In some of the kids' homes they don't get that. I think we are moving little big mountains, and in many ways the kids are teaching me more about myself than any 9-to-5 job could. It's selfish I guess, but in most ways it's selfless."

Back in the break-dance room, Sarah Haykel has just come off the floor, one of the few females who break dance. A graduate of State University of New York in Fredonia, she has been dancing for six months. "It's really a positive, open place. You can just chill," she says. "I think some of the guys here are in the forefront of break dancing."

Stalls shares what he has learned about guiding a successful youth center. "We're helping groups in two Florida cities and in Palo Alto, Calif.," he says. "The frustrating thing is I hear people say they don't know what works. That is almost criminally negligent. The kids say, 'Why do adults think we are so stupid?' We know what works."

Stalls wants to expand into a bigger building and help the youths succeed in commercial projects. "Maybe a series of books, more CDs, bigger magazine," he says. "It's beautiful to think that a fully equipped desktop and graphic studio can relate to a kid who is hanging from his toes from a street sign 'tagging' [spraying graffiti] over a highway."

The University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence analyzed surveys of 147 youths who come to The Spot. Some 91 percent felt that the center helped them stay out of trouble, and 67 percent felt they had a accomplished a goal since coming there. "I've had kids tell me point-blank that if it wasn't for The Spot, they would have ended up in a gang," says Johnson.

*The Spot's Web site

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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