Janet Mendez, 18, is only one of hundreds whose lives have been changed — and for the better — by the Neighborhood Youth Association (NYA), an organization devoted to serving low income, high-risk youth and families in the Venice and Mar Vista communities.

Founded in 1906, NYA is a nonsecretarian nonprofit organization with programs that address education as the key to one’s success.

In 2006, NYA celebrated 100 years of service to the local community. And to this day, NYA stands by its mission — building a better future, one kid at a time.

“We’re one big extended family,” said Vendella Barnett, executive director of NYA. “That’s what sets us apart. The kids are really connected.”

And Mendez, now a freshman at UCLA, agrees. She entered NYA’s after school program when she was in the third grade and continued until she was in 12th grade.

“I see them as a second family,” Mendez said. “All the support they give you. The support they give parents, the students, your family, relatives. They’re there for practically everything — for homework, or if you need a tutor.”

Mendez’ older brother was also in NYA’s after school program, and her younger sister is currently in the program.

Mendez comes back as often as she can to volunteer — like when she gets breaks from college. “I like doing it,” she says of volunteering at NYA.

NYA operates two programs — the after-school program (from 3-6 p.m.) at the Mar Vista Learning Center, which serves about 100 youths from first through 12th grade, and Las Doradas Children’s Center, a state-licensed preschool (ages three to five) located in Venice.

“We have a waiting list — usually because kids can remain in the program for as long as they like, which I think is really important,” said Barnett, who calls the after-school program “comprehensive” and “longitudinal” in design.

“The kids can choose to remain in the program until they successfully complete high school if they so desire,” she said. And most of them do.

“If they don’t, it’s usually because they have a lot of other stuff on their plate,” said Anne Murphy, director of programs. “It’s usually for positive reasons, like a part-time job or they’re on the track team.”

The average length of time a young person is with NYA is about four to five years, said Murphy.

“Working with a young person over the long-term allows us to have a greater impact,” said Murphy.

NYA staff works on a range of issues and activities with the kids — aside from education — including focusing on their relationships with siblings and parents.

“It’s important to have stability and have the support that you need,” said Barnett. “I think it’s important to help children believe in themselves and become productive citizens.”

NYA also provides tutoring and many different classes kids can participate in, including karate, art, computer literacy, computer design, and even Princeton Review classes for high school juniors and seniors to prepare for the SAT.

Students are separated into age-appropriate “friendship groups.” High school students have the opportunity to become youth leaders who participate in the program, get a stipend, tutor NYA students and participate in leadership activities.

It’s an opportunity for youth to “build their leadership skills, be successful, but also to segway into becoming leaders,” said Murphy. Mendez was a youth leader for several years while involved in the program.

The model that NYA developed and uses is called Personal Best, designed “to ensure that every young person will earn a high school diploma and go on to post-secondary education or training,” said NYA officials.

Personal Best incorporates four main components — academic/curriculum enhancement, personal and living skills, career planning, and cultural recreational enrichment.

Also, students always get one hour of recreation “because it’s critical they get that kind of exercise,” Murphy said.

This also helps them “round out the educational experience” and makes the program “as enjoyable as possible” for students, said Murphy.

Aside from the youth, Barnett said that one of the most important things at NYA is the loyalty and dedication of the staff.

Loyalty is part of the reason Barnett has stuck with the organization for 31 years.

“I think one of the things that makes NYA special is the staff, because we have a group of dedicated and committed people that have been with the agency many, many years,” said Barnett. “They have an investment in the community and children.”

Both Murphy and Mendez agree.

In addition to staff, at any given time, there are about 20 volunteers at NYA. Richard Freund, a senior at Windward School, is one of them.

Freund originally began volunteering at NYA to receive his required community service hours to graduate from high school, but continued because he liked it so much.

“I love it here,” said Freund, who tutors first through third graders in literacy and math. “I love the kids. It’s not just an after-school program; it’s a lot more immersive. NYA gives the kids a shot at a higher level of education. It’s really making the kids more well-rounded.”

“It provides direction,” Mendez said. “You have somewhere to go.”

In addition to volunteers, Barnett also stressed the strong parent component to the program.

“The parents have a vested interest in the program, which is really important,” she said. “There’s a strong coordination with the parents [and staff].”

To attend the NYA program, there’s a nominal fee — based on a sliding scale of the family’s ability to pay, said Barnett.

NYA is also funded through corporate, foundation and private donors, grants and state funding.

They also raise money through fundraising efforts and community benefit events, like the 13th annual Venice Garden and Home Tour to be hosted in May. Barnett and Murphy call the event a “lot of fun.”

NYA also gives out scholarships and awards to their students at their Scholarship and Community Awards Dinner. They’re holding their 24th annual event in March.

Last year, Mendez received a scholarship and she’s also applying for one this year.

“They’ve given me so much,” she said. ” A lot of memories go back to being in NYA.”

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