Last year, Victor Oliver, 20, got out of jail after serving two months for stealing stereo equipment. Home Depot, where he'd held a job, would not rehire him and he couldn't find work. At his girlfriend's urging, he dropped by the center. He began getting counseling to help put his life back in order but it was the birth of his child that convinced him he had to turn his life around.
The center's dynamic executive director, Regina Jackson, took a chance on Oliver and made him a counselor for younger kids.
"Miss Regina taught me that the kids could look up to me. They didn't have to look up to gangbangers and everyone else like that," he said.
He did well as a counselor, and when Jackson learned that a local Jamba Juice smoothie shop had an opening, she persuaded the manager to hire Oliver.
"Miss Regina, she plays favorites," he said. "Everybody's her favorite."
Jackson, 48, has spent 25 years at the center -- running it for the past 16. "We try to help make them better people, better attitudes, more education, more exposure to the real opportunity that exists inside themselves -- if they believe they can achieve. We try to develop that and then point them in the right direction so that they can make that a reality," she told me.
The unemployment rate in Oakland is more than 17 percent, nearly double the national figure.
To give you an idea of how hard the latest recession has hit this city of more than 400,000, the jobless figure for August 2007 before the national economy crashed was 7.7 percent. That should not suggest the local economy was doing well before the recession. Oakland's economy has been in decline for half a century, but the recent economic downturn was staggering.
On Calmar Avenue, down the street from the home where I grew up, I met Michael Elliott, an auto mechanic, and his father, John, a retired theology professor at the University of San Francisco.
Elliot, who's in his mid-40s, used to own an auto repair shop but lost it when the building was sold before the recession hit. His next shop went under, and he has been unable to find work ever since. He gets by now by servicing whatever customers he can find, going to their homes to do the work. He says more and more people are forgoing routine maintenance to save money.
"The last year has been the worst by far," he said as he sat on the front steps of his parents' home. "I can't really pick up any jobs."
Things have gotten so bad, he has moved back in his parents. "If I didn't have my parents to fall back on, I would probably be homeless," he said.
I asked his father about the recent report that government economists say the recession technically ended last year.
"Oh, I don't believe that at all," John Elliot said. "I don't know what measurements they're using to determine that but, I mean, for the people on the street? We don't see it."
Against this backdrop of economic darkness, a bright "green" light shines in Oakland -- "green" as in green jobs in the construction industry.
At 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, a dozen or so young men and women are going through a punishing regimen of calisthenics. This is the Oakland Green Jobs Corps.
The people hitting the floor to do pushups are trainees being whipped into shape so they will be fit enough for the physical rigors of a job in the construction trade.