- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Imagine this: a place dedicated to the enhancement of the individual. A place where people are challenged to set personal goals and a community has been established to help them pursue those dreams - free from judgment by others and reinforced by mutual respect. Sounds pretty good, right? It is.

For a lucky community of young people in the San Francisco Bay Area, this place is a reality they can enjoy every day. Starting it out of his home in the late 1970s, Gary Riekes created the Riekes Center for Human Enhancement to build self-esteem in young people through a strength-and-fitness academy. Woven into the model was an emphasis on providing outlets for personal expression through the creative arts and a set of values that reinforced teamwork, confidence-building, goal-setting and lifetime wellness, regardless of skills or background.

Before long, Mr. Riekes’ home became a hub of activity for neighborhood youth.

Because of its popularity, in 1996 Mr. Riekes moved the center from his home to a 40,000-square-foot complex in Menlo Park. Today, when you walk inside the Riekes Center, you are swept away immediately by the scope of the vision and the energy of the space.

The center’s focal point is a massive gym where trainers are working with young people on every level of fitness. A high schooler learns advanced sprint techniques, a middle schooler is working through balancing exercises, a group of elementary students are doing stomach crunches under the watchful eye of a coach. On the other side of a curtain, a high school basketball team is running drills next door to batting practice. Through all of this, the air is punctuated by the rhythmic booms of a drummer practicing in the music studio while another student mixes beats for a CD he is creating.

Upstairs is the photography darkroom; around the corner is a film-editing suite. An art studio is tucked into the corner where recently created oil and acrylic paintings hang. On another floor is the Nature Activity Center, where students are taught about the natural world and prepare for local hiking excursions. Every wall in the center is filled with photos of young people and recent alumni, some of whom have gone on to play college-level and even Olympic sports.

A nonprofit organization, the Riekes Center offers an array of classes, monthly gym memberships and a wide variety of customized fitness programs. These “fee-for-service” dollars, when matched by substantial philanthropic gifts raised in the community, makethe Riekes Center accessible to all. About a quarter of its participating students receive financial aid or scholarships along the way. Students also are able to earn classes and membership by working through the Volunteer Center, where they either contribute to the community or perform jobs for the center, such as guiding tours for curious visitors (a coveted job).

Our tour guide’s name is Aaron. He arrived in the United States six years ago without knowing a word of English. Shortly after unpacking,Aaron cameto the Riekes Center through the invitation of a neighbor, and then he won a scholarship. First attracted to the gym, Aaron quickly branched out into the creative arts, becoming an accomplished photographer, painter and drummer. Three years ago, he was invited to mentor other students (peer mentoring, coaching and teaching are important parts of the Riekes model) and now is one of the primary creative arts teachers. His personal goals are virtually boundless - starting with his recent enrollment in a local university.

As one is strolling through the Riekes Center, one question keeps popping up: Can we bring this to our community? The potential benefits are undeniable, but can the magic translate to another site? We won’t know until we try. In the words of the Riekes Center, we must “dream, explore, create and achieve.”

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development company. They can be reached at [email protected]

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