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Oakland youth take flight class

on February 9, 2016

Every Saturday morning, kids of all ages gather in the sunlit second story of a West Oakland community building. The kids come to attend a lesson unusual for most youngsters, especially those from a low-income neighborhood like theirs: These pupils are learning to fly.

At the headquarters of Oakland Youth First (OYF), there’s an air traffic control room with a monitor showing every single plane currently in flight over the country. A woman’s voice announces live in-flight information over a transmitter. The murmur of simulated propellers is convincing to any visitor.

Each child takes a seat in a large leather pilot’s chair facing a computer with official flight simulation software and full controls: a headset, throttle, yoke and foot pedal. The Saitek software on the program’s 25 monitors is used by pilots and people training for their pilots’ licenses. Mr. B., an adult volunteer, puts a headset on 6-year-old Monica. “Are you ready?” he asks. She nods shyly and reaches for her control set.

The largest screen at the front of the room shows everyone the view inside the cockpit of a small jet. Its propeller whirls into action: “Lesson one,” announces a voice from the computer.

“Now pull the throttle, but not too hard!” says program director Matthew Graves Jr., urging the pupils to try on their own screens. Slowly, 25 simulated jets lift off the computerized ground.

Oakland Youth First is a donation-based non-profit that offers free career-training classes to disadvantaged Oakland children and their families: Kids of all ages and their parents are welcome. “I decided to build a program that would address the needs to have a future, to have a career and address how we learn,” said Graves. His time spent in the Navy and his career as a systems engineer served as inspiration for this program.

Aviation is not the only education OYF provides for kids; in fact it’s just the “air” portion of OYF’s “Land, Air and Sea” mission. The program has a thirteen-foot cabin cruiser that Graves takes out on the bay to introduce kids to the maritime industry. For high school kids, this “sea” portion of training includes lessons in hospitality to prepare them to work on cruise lines or for private boating companies. In the “land” portion, the kids learn about solar energy and robotics.

Graves’ goal is to expose kids who mostly live below the poverty line to jobs that are attainable without a higher education. He wants to inspire kids by teaching them skills they wouldn’t normally learn given their neighborhood—how to fly a plane, how to steer a boat—to develop interests that could lead them to a future they might not otherwise realize. For the younger kids, it’s about offering exposure to unusual possibilities early. For older kids, it’s about developing specific skills: They learn what an air traffic controller does—a job that can pay $60,000 a year to a person without more than a high school diploma—and can actually rack up aviation hours on the program’s full-sized simulator and prepare to qualify for their pilots’ license test.

OYF has seen 300 families through the program since its transformation from Scotland Youth and Family Center, a non-profit counseling center, in 2012. Graves was hired at that time to rebuild the center’s programming, and was recognized for his work with the Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2014.

“The process starts when the kids arrive outside,” said Graves. He and the volunteers ask attendees, “What do you want to do with your life?” “What career do you want to have?” “Have you ever been in a plane?” By putting controllers in their hands, Graves hopes to engage a greater number of children in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He said the main thing he wants the kids to come away with after each day is the feeling that they have a choice in what to do with their lives.

Graves believes its hands-on approach gives the kids a sense of purpose and motivation to reach for something, rather than dropping out of school or giving up on life. As a kid, he was intrigued by NASA and developments in space exploration that later drove him to join the military and pursue a career as a systems engineer. “When I was a kid, there were teachers that helped me stay on track,” he said. Graves said the people who believed in him and showed him he could do anything he wanted who really made a difference in his life. He hopes to do the same for the kids he sees by inserting some “rays of hope” into their lives.

As a former foster youth, Graves has a unique view into the struggles of many of the kids he works with, as many are in the foster care system. “I know what’s going on inside them. You have this feeling you don’t really belong anywhere. I understand what they don’t tell you, because I was one,” he said.

For this reason, Graves has seen the value of counseling and psychological care. He certifies all the volunteers at OYF to give Trauma Informed Care, a version of counseling based on interventions. “The high schoolers, we have to address them when they come in here. What’s blocking you today? What’s going on at home, today? Teen pregnancy, today. The violence, the adolescent drug use—those are the challenges we’re working with,” said Graves.

This program is about “encouragement, it’s stimulation, it’s curiosity, it’s engagement,” Graves said. “When you see the kids come in here and they’re actually able to fly the plane, with the realism of our largest simulator, it changes them forever.”

As Saturday’s flight lesson comes to a close, an older girl in the back row high-fives an elementary school student. “We got our ten wings!” she exclaims. They had completed the day’s ten levels on the simulator, a feat that will allow the girls to take on new challenges next week.

The younger girl eagerly returns the high-five, her other hand still on the console.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

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