Santa Barbara’s vibrant Funk Zone pulsates with an edgy creative energy against the serene, postcard-perfect atmosphere of the waterfront. New wineries, shops and galleries are popping up with some frequency, but one of the brightest additions to the neighborhood is the new Youth Interactive Center, which opened this month at 209 Anacapa St.
The center — targeting at-risk teenagers with programs focused on technology, entrepreneurship and the arts — is the brainchild of Nathalie Gensac. The French-born entrepreneur, former European TV travel show host, model and movie producer has opened similar centers in Montana, India, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea and the United Kingdom.
Gensac says she found her passion for helping others while touring around the world for her work.
“I kept seeing the disparity between the very rich and the very poor, ... and seeing that the children are not being nurtured in their own capacities,” she said.
“I quit my job to spend two years to travel and speak to women around the world. They all said, on five continents, ‘our children are our hope they are the next generation.’
“Entrepreneurship is a huge aspect,” she said. “They felt that if the kids could engage and share that at a young age they would value it and then they would learn to grow with it. So that’s why I created Youth Interactive.”
Gensac, a London-educated daughter of an elite French media family, doesn’t appear at first to have much in common with the at-risk children she’s so passionate about helping. But when she was 17, she was essentially sent out into the world to make her own way with about $400 in cash. She lucked into a modeling career that paid her way through drama school.
“When I became much more mature I thought, well, it’s my job to give back and to create something that is going to give a hand up to kids who really don’t have much help,” said Gensac, who has no children of her own, but is engaged to Dale Dewey, who has a 25- and a 19-year-old.
On the surface, the needs and challenges of Santa Barbara’s youth are worlds away from the other places where Gensac has established programs.
“If you go to Jamaica or somewhere where they are very, very poor, they’re hungry for attention,” she said. “They’re hungry for the opportunity because they have so little.
“Here it’s a different kind of help that they need. I think it’s more about trust and being in an environment where they can take chances and they can fail, and that’s OK, and they can grow as people.”
Still, there are many parallels among the various Youth Interactive programs. Gensac, who was nominated by Ernst & Young as Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2008, developed a very specific set of criteria she thought was necessary for success: A big disparity between rich and poor, a location that was near a large media center, a population of tourists to buy the boutique goods the kids produced and a community with lots of nonprofit organizations with which to partner. Santa Barbara met all of the requirements.
She began a feasibility study in 2009 and has paired up with an impressive number of local partners. These include Antioch University Santa Barbara, The Arts Fund Santa Barbara, Cage Free Productions, the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, Pacific Youth Ventures, Palabra, SafeLaunch, Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative, Santa Barbara Children’s Chorus, Santa Barbara City College, UC Santa Barbara and Willow Rock Writers, as well as many other benefactors and supporters.
The local business model is consistent with the nonprofit organization’s other worldwide projects, which partner with proactive people within the community and then let them run the show.
Gensac, however, plans to stay put in Santa Barbara, where she’s enjoying exploring area hiking trails, beaches and wineries. The Funk Zone location will be the organization’s international headquarters.
“I have to emphasize it’s not a teen center; the kids there have to want to do something with their lives,” she said. “There’s a lot of lethargy and we are really trying to counteract that.”
“Before I was a TV host I was a producer and I worked a budget,” she said. “I’m very careful and caring when it’s somebody else’s money, and I wanted all of the processes to be in place. ... Now it’s ready for a donor to feel the impact straight away. The background’s been done.”
Click here for more information about the Youth Interactive Center, or call 805.453.4123 to get involved.