The original motivation to create "a place" came from the frustration of working with "high risk" urban adolescents and having no place in Denver that welcomed them during the hours that were relevant to them, and that was accessible, safe, and fun. Their kind of fun. For 9 months in 1993 and 1994 we searched for space. We spoke to over 90 property owners including churches, schools, store fronts, warehouses, etc. Some were too deep in a gang territory, which would limit the participation of youth from other neighborhoods or gangs. Most were simply unavailable due to adults' fear of and apathy toward our clientele. The churches didn't want to risk scaring away any of their paying older members. The schools didn't want to challenge their administrative rules. Even when we agreed to pay advertised lease rates, we were constantly rejected.
Finally we set a "drop dead date" of early June, 1994. We had to have something, even a garage if need be, before the start of another violent summer. When time really got short we approached a friend, local nonprofit director Jess Willis of the Curtis Park Community Center. He graciously agreed to allow us to use two adjacent rooms that opened to the street about 10 blocks from downtown Denver.
The facility was small (maybe 700 SF). It was deep in Crip gang territory. And, it was only available for the summer months. No matter! It was free. It was a start. Three nights per week from about 6 PM to 9 PM. Two over stuffed chairs. A huge donated bean bag chair. A table with my tiny TV and my floppy disk computer. Our only software was Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster. A Mr. Coffee bought at Goodwill. Not exactly a teenage mecca. Our clientele were mostly younger neighborhood kids. Some older youth we knew dropped by occasionally, but there was little for them to do, and the younger kids drove them crazy (me, too).
The real founders of what was to become The Spot youth center was a group of teens who made up the Com'n On Strong grant making group: Jackson, Kim, Duane, Mandy, Milk, Tanika, Esteban, Sharon, and Erma Lisa.. We had gotten a $15,000 grant from some local families (members of the Charter Fund) who agreed to allow the youth to select the nonprofit recipients. This group also chose the name, "The Spot", after much spirited debate. We took a risk in allowing this name, because at the time "The Spot" was a common name for any place you could go to buy crack cocaine. But, as usual, the youth were right. It's turned out to be a great name.
September of '94 was a huge month for our youth center. One day driving down Stout Street as it emerged from downtown I saw a "For Lease"sign on an abandoned industrial building. The sign had gone up that day and I got a tour later that afternoon. The owner, John McCusker, was the first property owner who said "maybe" to our proposal for a youth center. That "maybe" was all we needed. We soon convinced him that we were low maintenance, with no need for renovations, and we'd cover his monthly expenses. We signed a two year lease for this 10,000 SF bi-level building at about $1500/month rent. Signing that lease scared the hell out of me. Later that same week we learned that we were awarded our first grant, which we applied for back in June, for approximately $25,000 from the state's Youth Crime Prevention and Intervention (YCPI) fund.
The building was in horrible shape. Only about 7,000 SF was useable (due to constant sewer backups in the basement). Employees from Phil Long Ford donated a truckload of used office furniture and their sweat to help put a dent in 10 years of dust, dirt, dead things, and other crud. Financially it was going to be very tight. To make ends meet I lived out of the basement for 6 months. After the third time the sewer backed up into my "no natural light or sound" room, it was time to move out and into an apartment.
On the business and financial side, it all started with Jim Bye, a well known and respected attorney with the Holmes Roberts & Owen law firm. I had many ideas in the spring of 1993, and Jim offered me some invaluable advice: "Start with one simple idea and do it well". He also introduced me to many others. His partner Don Hopkins helped us through the state's incorporation and bylaws process, and wrote the IRS application documents for our 501-C3. Don also advised us to get an independent audit every year (which we have wisely done from the start). Colleagues of Jim's, Ron Williams and Sam Gary of Gary Williams Energy Corp. and the Piton Foundation, agreed to contract my services in a way that allowed me to invest my full time into this project. To this day they are still our youth center's biggest and most loyal corporate/individual sponsor. Their Senior Vice President, Dave Younggren eventually became our Board chairperson. Rich Rainaldi, formerly of the Piton Foundation and now with U.S. Bank, was our day to day contact with Piton. In June '94 we submitted our first written grant proposal to the fledgling Youth Crime Prevention and Intervention (YCPI) fund in the Department of Local Affairs of Colorado Governor Roy Romer's office. As mentioned above, in September '94 we were awarded a $25,000 grant. A dynamic and visionary Coloradoan, who was a respected state legislator named Tony Grampsas, along with Colorado Children's Campaign director Barbara O'Brien, created the YCPI grassroots state funded pool. Tony has since passed away, yet we will always remember and be grateful for his caring, courage and follow through. The Spot would not exist without Tony G! Members of the Charter Fund, a group of charitable family foundations coordinated by the Piton Foundation, stepped to the plate to begin covering many of our operating costs. Our first employee was Kim Reagan whose part-time pay was covered by Noel & Tom Congdon, local oil people and philanthropists. Tony and Delisa Mayer, along with Tony's parents' Fred and Jan Mayer, were some of our earliest investors. Hal and Ann Logan were introduced to us by the Mayers. Doak Jacoway, a personal mentor and fellow Sigma Chi, was there to cover many months of our start-up's needs. Other friends such as Kathy French introduced us to colleagues at the Denver Leadership Forum. One of those was Mary Easterday, who became one of our youth center's founding "advisory board" members. Soon to follow were Kelly & Tim Root, and Diane & John Leede. Every one of our earliest investors listed above are still our staunchest supporters. In hind sight, I don't find it a coincidence that many of these investors are business people involved with higher risk businesses of their own such as oil, investments, cable, and entrepreneurial ventures. Through their own business experiences they have learned that it is usually necessary to make higher risk investments if you want to achieve higher returns. It's no different with youth and The Spot youth center.
One of Don Hopkins' suggestions was to wait until we built a solid track record before we asked people to formally join a Board of Directors, with its accompanying fiduciary responsibilities. Our night time project for older youth, who come from many different neighborhoods and gangs, was rightfully perceived as "rather risky". We initially agreed to have the minimum of 2 board members. I was President and Don Hopkins agreed to be Secretary. Don was and is a courageous (and maybe crazy) person. We simultaneously developed a less formal "advisory board" of people who believed in the concept of The Spot youth center.
So, we had some money, we had a place, and we had some street wise youth involved. Build it and they will come! Right? Wrong! Some came, but they didn't stay. And they didn't come back. It was boring! That's when Ms. Reggie Huerter, former staff with Denver Partners, adult advisor for GRASP (Gang Rescue and Support Project), and founder/director of the Denver District Attorney's Juvenile Diversion Program came to our rescue (although not for the first or last time). She offered us some simple yet effective advice. "Find the right leader youth and ask them what to do!" Duh! She suggested Delfino "Fienz" Rodriquez, a well known (on the street) b-boy (i.e. graffiti artist, breakdancer, and rapper). He and his soon to be wife came and had lunch and looked over the almost empty Spot. He pointed to the blank walls and asked us to buy some Krylon spray paint and allow graf murals. He pointed to the old hard carpet on the basement floor and suggested two 10' strips of linoleum fastened to the floor with carpet tape (available at any larger hardware store)Íthe perfect breakdancing surface. He asked us to buy a good and powerful boombox for the music (youth would bring their own CD's).
Thank you Regina and Fienz! The Spot youth center and its Hip Hop roots were born!!. Every time we've provided more space, staff, equipment, supplies, computers, etc. for our youth to express their talents in the elements of the Hip Hop culture, more urban adolescents have found us and consistently returned.
Other than Kim, our earliest employees were AmeriCorps members. This domestic "Peace Corps" gave us access to skilled and dedicated people at almost no cost. In the birthing stages of a small business like The Spot youth center, dependable and affordable human resources are crucial to success. Our very first AmeriCorps members were Francine and Cedric. Both were in prison when we met. They soon got out and I hired them. Both did a good job of outreaching and relating to the challenged youth we sought as participants. Later, we had other AmeriCorps members. One of them became my wife, Peggy. When Peggy first joined me, 2 hours after our first lunch date, to visit a small building that formerly was a head shop (for those out of touch a head shop is a store that sells marijuana paraphernalia) as a possible site for The Spot youth center. Peggy played a huge role in co-founding The Spot, and becoming a mentor and friend to many of our participants. Julie Darby, an AmeriCorps member taking a sabbatical from her graphic art career, and Peggy soon created our youth magazine. Julie also created our first graphics/desktop publishing computer station and our original logo with the name "The Spot".
There were so many graffiti artists that nightly brought their sketchbooks filled with unreal drawings, photos, and paintings. There were so many gang bangers and homeless youth with street real written and spoken poems and raps. It became imperative to show the "outside world" these kids' creative talent. This talent and their reality deserved recognition. Our emerging publication needed a name. Like every name we create, the youth do the creating. During a late night basement brain storming session, Bumpy and Aaron proposed the name, Inner 303. "Inner" stands for both the "inner city"and the "inner journey". "303" is tagger language used with graffiti sprayed on the outside of train cars that travels the country. Just like with train graffiti, the artists include their home telephone area code next to their signature, which lets others around the world know the origin of the work (303 is the area code for Denver).
In the early days our founders and many of our participants were gang members, homeless youth, gay/lesbian/bi youth, graffiti artists, b-boys, etc. These are the groups of youth that nobody wanted near them (still the case today!). These are youth who often endured and dished out violence. The risky behaviors of many of these youth frequently spilled over into The Spot youth center, and our staff became very adept at recognizing and diffusing conflicts and violence. The old heads will never forget the night that the Denver Police SWAT team had the place surrounded due to the presence of a young woman who had just kidnapped a baby from the hospital. Fortunately to this day we have never had anyone seriously hurt at The Spot youth center by a weapon (knock on wood). Especially during the first two years conflict was every night, and more than once per night. One of the greatest gifts our staff has offered our youth is the opportunity to squash conflict in a respectful manner. We continue to evolve and we now attract a group of urban youth who continue to face many challenges, but are most often looking to maintain a peaceful and respectful environment. Conflicts still occur frequently, but are less often accompanied by violence.
Working on the street with youth you learn early that there's one main code that rules the street --RESPECT! Because it's the street code of conduct for our youth, it has always been and always will be the code of The Spot youth center. All staff, volunteers, and youth are expected to demonstrate respectful behavior toward each other at all times. Without it, safety cannot exist. Without a safe place, nothing else can be accomplished.
From the beginning we wanted to provide a positive and safe alternative on Friday and Saturday evenings. Once we had enough staff and volunteers to commit to 5 nights a week we were open Tuesday - Saturday. For the first two and a half years this was our schedule. Problem! We got many more youth participating on weekday nights than on weekend nights. Even when we created a dance club atmosphere on weekend nights we couldn't compete with the commercial nightclubs and house parties. Our high school age and older youth wanted a totally social environment with access to alcohol and more on the weekends. We quickly found that a nightclub was not our cup of tea. We stubbornly hung onto the weekend nights until we could no longer justify the staff expenditure for so few attending youth. Finally we asked the youth which 5 nights per week they'd utilize The Spot youth center most. They told us, and thus our schedule is Sunday - Thursday.
Our youth center's hours of operation quickly became and have remained 5:30 PM - 10:30 PM. We wanted to provide services to our youth when little else was available and when they really wanted and needed it. Yet, we did not want to expose our under 18 year old population to the risk of being out after curfew (11:00 PM). Since curfew violations can include traveling, we decided to shut down our program each night at 10:30 PM. This at least offered our youth a running start toward home (assuming they have one). It also allowed the staff to do clean up, write our nightly report, secure the building, and head home before midnight. We then worked backwards on the clock to determine when we should open. After school hours are important, but we did not have enough staff and resources to be open for 8 hours per night. We also found that our staff can offer a lot of emotional and physical energy to our youth when the nightly program is limited to 5 hrs/night. With 5 hrs/night dedicated to program, that allows some quality time, 3 hours/afternoon (approximately 2:00 PM - 5:00 PM), to conduct return calls, follow-up on referrals, plan, train, and participate with other community organizations. All of these more daytime duties are necessary to being an effective and professional youth serving staff person.
In 1997 it became glaringly clear that the escalating downtown real estate lease and purchase prices were going to eventually price us out of the downtown market. Since our downtown location was and is so critical to our success (i.e. gang neutral and easy public transportation access), our board decided to bite the bullet and purchase our own place. Luckily we were able to buy a building that was only 1 block away that required very little immediate alternation. Our new and current building was built in 1936 for Paramount Studios as a film screening facility. The layout and many attributes of this 9,500 SF building are not ideal for a youth center (e.g. two floors with no elevator), but we have adapted to each other and are co-existing nicely.
There are two major groups of people who deserve the most credit for giving birth to The Spot youth center: our youth and staff/volunteers. The lists below only offers first names and nick names in order to preserve some sense of privacy. Only the "old heads" have been listed. Please let us know if we've missed some key names. To those who gave The Spot youth center their time and energy in those early days. THANK YOU! We hope you're proud of your role! We hope The Spot has made your life better! Please let us know how you're doing.
Youth (Old Heads)
Jackson and son Marquis, Kim, Duane, Mandy, Milk, Tanika, Esteban, Sharon, Erma Lisa, Fienz, Big Bird, Marz, Bus, REK, Voice, Pheud, James, Damone, Chonz, Emilio, Eatholar, Scribe, Carrie, Teddy, Tweety, Sefen and son Landon, Wanbli, Aaron "Too Slo", Bumpy, Deanna, Gina "Curly", Sandra, Rakia, Leo, Castle, Sotero, Hillary, K.P., Lil K.P., Coolaid, Scotty, Lefty, Thomas, Fashawn, Joy, M.J., Nikki "Yogi", Gary, Aaron, Heather, Janeen, Art, Maz, Jonette, Sophia, Sandra, K.K., Tracy, Mikail, Clint, Little One, Cassandra, Jessi, J-Rock, Razor, Michael W., Rachael, Flaco, Nadine, Monique, Dalmation, Soul, Swek, Phatz, La Mar, Mongo, Yvonne, Roach, Maria, Raisin, Zehl, Autumn, Droopy, Sabrina, Ernest "CM EZ", Star, Tioni, Benzo, Charles, Chronic, Misty, Felecia, Guyo, Darlene, Dagnia, Leah, Africa Sam, Menis, Mope, Chris, Speedy, Tahnee, Diva, Marcio, L.A., Seneca, LeAndrea "Aura", Logan, Cookie, Vanna, Grip, Skillz, Kornbread, Sabrina, Grigsby, Phea, Trig, Lil Trig, Nikko, Big Chris, Jelani, Kelly, Cliff, Shortie, Forest, Chunk, Fate, Duane "Buffy", Bill, Rage, Baby Girl, Hillo, Munch, Triz, Coco, Shaunette, Al Capone, Lenore, JuJu, Blea, Kidd, Kane, Calvin, Snoopy, Ben, Zeezo, Ewok, Source, Mad,Arc, Screamer, Eppi, Lea.
Staff and Volunteers
Peggy (my future wife), Cedric, Francine, Kim, Esteban, Tanika, Jackson, Mandy, Wanbli, Voice, Chris T., EZ Money, Julie D., Scott C., Duane M., Bill, Serena, M.J., Carrie, Vittoria, Aaron W., Jason P., Nick, George, Amy, Kate, Monk, Michael D., Jamie S., Sherri H.
There is so much that is missing from this historical "brief." There is so much that could be said about our plans for the future. It's been an incredibly creative and entrepreneurial adventure in both business and youth service. It certainly ain't over yet! Stay tuned and hold onto your hat for our future!! Please call, write, or email us if you'd like to know more.