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Jefferson Award Winner Founds Nonprofit To Teach Oakland's Youth Life Skills

OAKLAND (CBS 5) - A West Oakland program makes sure to open its doors every Saturday afternoon to young people, rain or shine, holiday or not, and even when disaster strikes. And that's because this week's Jefferson Award winner never fails to show.

In a large room at the De Fremery Recreation Center, kids recently crowded around a table loaded with paint and paper plates decorated as jack-o-lanterns.

"Y'all doing art today?" 21-year-old Mae Harris asked one girl.

Harris returns regularly to the West Oakland youth program that she said transformed her from drinking high school dropout to responsible college freshman. She said she owes her success to the five years she spent at What Now America, the Saturday afternoon program founded by Milad Yazdanpanah.

"I'm on the right path right now and if it wasn't for them I would never have gotten on the right track," Harris explained.

Every Saturday from noon 'til 5, the nonprofit opens its doors at the rec center. About 40 kids, aged 4 to teen, pile in to learn science, language, art and math. Yazdanpanah, a senior business analyst, started the nonprofit in 2008 to fill a void.

"Looking in this neighborhood, one of the first things that we noticed was there's a large amount of liquor stores," he said. "There's very few programs that actually cater to students' needs on Saturdays."

Yazdanpanah also teaches the older kids to cook healthy meals and serve them to the younger students and volunteers. All of the children take home fresh produce from the food bank. There is no nearby grocery store, only a dollar store.

"They have milk there," Yazdanpanah said with irony. "Milk is 3-something per gallon! A big sign says this is the only item in the store that's not a dollar!"

Twelve-year-old Arianna Jones said What Now America has given her an experience she would not get at home.

"I've learned how to cook," Jones said. "I learned how to do a lot of science experiments, how to reason with people, how to calm down my anger."

Besides the Saturday sessions, What Now America's 75 volunteers stage Back to School events, Christmas movie day, and a Thanksgiving dinner. Yazdanpanah is always there. He even showed up for a holiday program the day after his Berkeley apartment building caught fire.

"It was our big event and he didn't let the fire keep him from being here with the kids," remembered board member Leann Alameda. "I just was blown away."

Yazdanpanah remembers how he felt that day:

"My reaction was, while I can truly say that all I own is everything I'm wearing, I still feel that I have more support that many of the students hat we're offering services to."

So for offering support and encouragement to West Oakland children every Saturday afternoon, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Milad Yazdanpanah.

Yazdanpanah says the group has a great need for donations to pay for school supplies and groceries to keep this program running. If you can help, connect with What Now America using this link:

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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