WayUp offers a bigger career vista to Oak Park youth

As the young students entered a lecture hall inside the sprawling UC Davis Medical Center recently, one after another paused in the doorway and let out an enthusiastic, “Ooooh.”

The more than 120 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Bret Harte Elementary School in Sacramento’s Curtis Park neighborhood had arrived for a daylong session with hospital staff and doctors aimed at exposing the students to health careers. Many of the students were familiar with the hospital – most of the kids at Bret Harte live in nearby Oak Park – but their experiences were not the result of happy moments.

“This was a place where a family member went for an emergency or a cousin went when he got shot, a place where you go when something bad happens,” said Liz Sterba, coordinator of Bret Harte’s Youth and Family Resource Center. “To see it and feel it in this context makes it real. College is a very amorphous concept for them, and now they’re sitting in the chairs where doctors learn.”

The field trip was funded and organized by WayUp, a neighborhood initiative in Oak Park launched in 2011 by city Councilman Jay Schenirer. UC Davis supplied several doctors and staff members for the event, as well as lunch.

WayUp has become a focus of Schenirer’s first term in office since he was elected in 2010. He is running for re-election next year and, so far, no one has signed up to challenge him in the diverse district that includes Curtis Park, Oak Park and more than 20 other neighborhoods on the city’s south side.

Schenirer was part of a wave of five new council members who took office between 2010 and 2012. Like Mayor Kevin Johnson, he is tapping into private money to fund his initiatives at a level unprecedented at City Hall.

Since taking office, Schenirer – a former city school district board member who still works in education policy – has raised nearly $1.2 million in donations on behalf of various nonprofits, according to financial records filed with the city clerk’s office. The vast majority of that money has gone to WayUp, which received some cash from Schenirer’s City Council budget when it was launched but now operates solely on private donations.

“It would be wonderful if the city had enough money to fill the needs of these young people, but unfortunately they don’t, so I’m going to do everything I can to find those funds,” Schenirer said.

WayUp is spearheading a number of causes.

In the spring, Schenirer said, the group will work with other local organizations to provide health screenings for elementary school kids in Oak Park, with the goal of eventually screening every student in the neighborhood. At the same time, workers will link families that lack health coverage with insurance options.

The organization has helped neighborhood residents launch more than 30 community gardens and is developing a plan to transform one-third of an acre behind the Oak Park Community Center into an urban farm for elementary and high school students to use as a learning space.

And on Stockton Boulevard, Schenirer envisions creating a “med zone” to attract biotech and medical device startups. He said WayUp is about to receive a grant to hire business consultants to work with graduate students from UC Davis and Drexel University on a plan to move that vision forward.

To spark that development, Schenirer said WayUp will explore what incentives the city can offer to startup firms to open their doors on Stockton Boulevard, which runs along the western border of the UC Davis Medical Center campus. The city also owns three empty lots on the boulevard, which could be sold to companies.

“When I leave office, I want to see things coming out of the ground,” he said.

Jefferson Reynolds, who has lived in Oak Park for 12 years, said he appreciates the work WayUp has done with the neighborhood’s young people, but wishes Schenirer and city officials would devote more time to combating the area’s drug trade and “slum lordism.”

“I’m a big fan of just getting the basic community safety issues ironed out,” Reynolds said. “It seems problematic to me that even if the youth are going to get their act together, you still have five or six locations where the drug dealing is long-standing.”

The work of WayUp is due in large part to Schenirer’s fundraising ability, which is dwarfed at City Hall only by Mayor Johnson. The biggest donors to Schenirer’s causes include the California Endowment ($734,772), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its charitable foundations ($60,000) and Sutter Health ($55,000), according to city records.

That fundraising has come with scrutiny. Schenirer has been criticized for collecting donations from Wal-Mart, even as the City Council considered easing restrictions on big-box superstores in the city. The council voted in August to loosen the regulations on the stores, with Schenirer voting in favor of the change.

Schenirer has defended his big-box store vote. He has supported other pro-business changes at City Hall and said he did not anticipate getting questioned on the Wal-Mart issue.

“I personally didn’t make the connection,” he said.