Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services (OYHFS) is a non-profit agency that provides comprehensive treatment, education, and support to more than 1,300 at-risk youth each year. OYHFS provides so many services to LA families, it’s difficult to encompass here the breadth of their reach. Which says a lot for an organization that started in 1906 after a dairy farmer and his wife took in two orphans! Today, Optimist YHFS is the largest agency of its kind in California. Through individualized treatment, specialized education and support services, Optimist strive to “build productive lives.”
The agency has grown from a teen residential program to include foster placement and adoption services, a charter school, teen parent programs, art & pet therapy, plus community programs for mental health and substance abuse. In 2017, OYFHS acquired Pacific Lodge Youth Services, an organization in Woodland Hills with a similar history and scope, to serve even more at-risk youth and families.
Optimist YHFS was recently featured on CNN. HLN’s Michaela Pereira discussed how working with Optimist and being a part of their community for ten years has enriched her own life. Pereira concludes the feature by saying, “I don’t believe in bad apples. I don’t believe in throw-away kids. At the end of the day, it’s a kid. They need some guidance. They need direction. They need some love; they need forgiveness. And they need hope (CNN).”
I think that’s a beautiful way to describe what I saw in action when I visited the Optimist Youth Home to teach a photography course to a group of teen boys.
Optimist’s main campus in Highland Park houses up to 85 foster youth in dorms, with additional apartments for older kids transitioning out of the system. In addition to housing, every client is provided with meals, education, and a team that addresses their individual mental and physical needs. The large campus also provides a ton of social, sport, and therapeutic activities for them to enjoy: A large garden, football field, and various field trips seem to be the favorites.
Samy’s Camera Outreach was delighted to contribute to the boys’ extracurricular life. Throughout the photography workshop, the boys learned concept and theory in a classroom setting. They practiced nature photography throughout the landscaped grounds and tried out food and macro photography in a beautiful hilltop vegetable garden.
The boys were especially interested in photojournalism, employing black and white photography to express their perception of the facilities and their juncture in life.
We followed up the course with a special field trip to Samy’s Camera in Pasadena — a guided store tour and a gallery show of their work.
The boys peppered me with technical questions about the cameras, lenses, and especially the lighting equipment. They definitely had fun trying out all the newest, fastest, and fanciest camera gear. My most memorable moment, however, was when the boys first spotted their framed photos up on the wall next to other featured artists. The look on their faces was one of bashful pride and joy (something these tough guys tend to hide when playing it cool). One by one, the young men stood next to their image and spoke to a gathered audience, wielding their new photography vocabulary with eloquence and grace.