Gym helps kids climb out of trouble


When you hear people talk about Oakland's crime rate - they often complain that kids don't have enough activities to keep them out of trouble. They now have a new spot where they can hang out -- and rise up above the city's troubles.

Simon Benkert hardly had a grip on his life as he entered the critical teenage years. At the age of 12-years-old - he was running around with the wrong crowd and using drugs. His frustrated mom sent him to live with his grandparents in Sacramento who decided Simon needed to fill his time with something constructive. So they sent him to a rock climbing gym.

"It changed my life, I mean it's all I do now," said Simon Benkert, rock climber.

Simon thinks he probably got into trouble because he didn't have anything else to do. Those long - and often unfulfilled after school hours are exactly what Touchstone Gyms are trying to help the community fill.

"The owner feels strongly that kids should be able to come in and use our facility regardless of their ability to pay; so we've provided free services to groups really discounted services to schools in the area," said Lyn Verinsky, general manager.

The company that runs the gym in Sacramento and five others in California has now opened one in Oakland called the Great Western Power Company. They've already started hosting school groups - including a class from lighthouse charter school. These kids come every Wednesday.

"A lot of kids who otherwise wouldn't get an opportunity to come here - got this way to come and climb through Touchstone," said Isabella Kulesza, teacher.

"I would definitely recommend it - this is one of the most amazing sports that I've ever played," said Armani Webster, student.

This could be the answer many Oakland residents have been looking for - as they try to get control of the city's crime rate.

The gym's manager says they certainly hope they can help their new community with some of its problems by reaching out to the younger kids before they get into trouble. She has already seen some young climbers leave here with their head held a little bit higher.

It definitely worked for 18-year-old Simon. He's off drugs - and figured out how to make money doing what he loves. He now works at the Oakland location.

"It boosts your self confidence. I know a lot of kids that have gotten into climbing - they didn't really have anything to do either and they started climbing and progressed really fast," said Simon Benkert, rock climber.

This is a for-profit company that relies on people to pay membership fees to use the gym. But the founders say they will always carve out some time for kids during the slow times at the gym - to try and keep them out of the fast lane.

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