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Investing in the Future

Author: Cerrissa Kim
January, 2017 Issue

Research shows that youth who engage in their communities are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, drop out of high school or be involved in criminal behavior. Involved youth also perform better academically and have lower rates of teen pregnancy. The North Bay is fortunate to have many outstanding organizations working to meet the needs of at-risk youth, providing tools that will help them become self-sufficient and offering them the support they need to become our next generation of leaders. Here’s a look at what some of these vital nonprofits are doing to aid and support at-risk youth in the North Bay.

Social Advocates for Youth (SAY)

SAY was formed in 1971 as a local response to a problem the community was having with “runaways.” At the time, it was illegal for a teenager to run away from home for any reason, yet defense lawyers working with these children found many of them were victims of abuse. The attorneys saw a need for a local child abuse prevention program, and youth advocates realized they needed help to get laws changed at the state and national level so youth trying to escape violence, abuse and neglect would no longer be charged as criminals but instead be provided with a safety net.

When SAY started in Santa Rosa, it was one of a handful of similar organizations in the Western United States that provided counseling to young victims. Through the dedication of youth advocates and those who founded and ran SAY, the United States Congress changed the laws affecting runaway youth by adopting the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act in 1974.

Over the last four decades, SAY continued to respond to community needs pertaining to youth. Along with the original individual counseling services, today it serves youth ages 5 through 24 with individual and family therapy, school-based mental health services, emergency shelter for ages 12 to 24, long-term housing and housing assistance for 18- to 24-year-olds, street outreach to homeless youth and career and life readiness programs.

“Our organization was born out of a call from the community and we’re heavily wedded to the needs of the community so that we can continue to make Sonoma County a great place to live,” says Matt Martin, SAY’s chief executive officer. A prime example of this work is the new SAY Finley Dream Center, which houses the organization’s administrative offices and many of its program services. The Dream Center also offers a mix of both short- and long-term housing, with a 12-bed short-term housing shelter and a longer-term affordable housing program that will, at capacity, serve 51 youth (the current capacity is 28). More than 450 donors came together to raise $9.8 million to build the Dream Center in a record-breaking capital campaign, one of the fastest in Sonoma County’s history.

SAY’s strong community ties include close relationships with local businesses. Says Martin, “When we have the opportunity to work with the business community who donates everything from money to event sponsorships and even coupons for free breakfasts for our clients. We find a way to give back to them as well. We aren’t interested in being a charity; we’re interested in being a business partner.” To this end, says Martin, SAY does what it can to spotlight business donors by doing things such as encouraging foot traffic and connecting donors to each other to build a network.

SAY also interacts with businesses is through its College and Career Pathways program. Last year, 174 high school teens were placed into job shadowing opportunities, and 100 young people were employed through the Youth Ecology Corps in partnership with the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Sonoma County Human Services Department. Businesses can also serve as a SAY employee pal. The employee pal can serve as a speaker for career events and offers SAY youth employment opportunities.

The Friedman family (Friedman’s Home Improvement) and businesses such as Dierk’s Parkside Café in Santa Rosa are two SAY business supporters that sponsor the organization, donate goods and provide entry-level employment opportunities. Connie Codding and her family, in conjunction with Codding Enterprises, has also been critical in making the Finley Dream Center a reality.

“Our biggest gap in services, especially for the most vulnerable, has to do with housing,” says Martin. A January 2016 census conducted by the Sonoma County Continuum of Care found that 663 youth were living on the streets. Of that number, 566 were 18- to 24-year-old transitional aged youth. “We’ve worked hard to fill homeless youth housing needs, and when our new housing units are full, we’ll be serving 63 youth. But that means 405 youth would be on the waiting list,” says Martin.

“We’re working as an organization to not just manage homelessness, but to end it,” says Martin, who explains that, once the youth have work and life skills, the goal is to find them stable, long-term housing. “The young people we work with are building the personal and professional muscle to reach for dreams and become self sufficient.”

On the Move/VOICES

On the Move was developed by a group of visionaries, nonprofit directors, school leaders and philanthropic frontrunners who gathered in 2003 to identify common challenges they’d faced throughout their careers. Their goal was to explore how to nurture future public sector leaders, strengthen organizations to help them thrive in a changing world and build relationships that create and strengthen vibrant communities.

Today, On the Move focuses on the interests, passions and commitment of young and emerging leaders who represent the diversity of their communities. Each initiative has emerged organically as a result of urgent, unmet needs that have been identified by the youth served, though staff members, providers, community and board members all have played a role in making change happen. All of On the Move’s programs are implemented using an intergenerational leadership model of co-creation and shared decision-making to address the many inequalities that exist within local communities for young people.

When On the Move set up a location in Napa in 2005, the first program it created was VOICES (Voicing Our Independent Choice for Emancipation Support), which addresses the needs of young people as they age out of the foster care system. The first step was to recruit a group of founding members who had experience with the foster care system and have them identify the needs of those who would no longer be able to rely on the system’s safety net.

First and foremost, they found youth were having a hard time accessing services—or even finding what and where the services were. Many became homeless, had difficulty finding employment, were disconnected from their biological families and had physical and mental health issues. Even though there were service providers in the community, young adults aging out of the foster system often didn’t know how to access the services or had issues that prevented them from accessing them.

VOICES’ founders realized these young people needed a centralized access point, where they would feel comfortable asking for services. “In 2004, this was a fairly new concept,” says Alissa Gentille, executive director of On the Move.

For youth who spent much of their lives moving from foster home to foster home, often victims of abuse or neglect, VOICES offers stability and support. It’s a place where they can work on finding housing and employment, as well as food, health and mental health services. But VOICES goes beyond supplying the basics for survival, this special program serves as a home base. It’s a place youth clients can make connections with adults and bond with other youth who’ve lived through similar life experiences. For youth who don’t have access to a family, they can build a support system. A Sonoma County VOICES location was added in Santa Rosa in 2008. Also unique to this program is that it is truly youth driven and led.

“Young people want to have an influence on the systems they interact with,” says Gentille. “VOICES creates opportunities for them to learn how to lead and affect and create policies and practices at the systems level for better outcomes.” VOICES provides empowerment opportunities, and the program’s model has spread beyond the North Bay to provide technical assistance to programs serving similar populations, such as The Hub in Santa Clara County and Epicenter in Monterey County.

Business partners are an integral part of On the Move’s continuing success, providing volunteers, donations, grants and in-kind support. VOICES partners with Wells Fargo and Exchange Bank to offer financial literacy education, and 25 to 50 businesses offer employment-based services, including work experience; these business partnerships provide paychecks and an opportunity to learn how to become a good employee. Local bike shops have donated bicycles so Voices youth are able to travel to and from work, and Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley often provides event space and helps raise money for the organization.

After volunteering to cut hair for the youth living at the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, owners of Brush Salon in Healdsburg, David Barnett, organized a charity soccer tournament, the Crush Cup, which takes place each spring in Healdsburg to raise money to support clients in their pursuit of higher education and career training. Many of the teams are sponsored by wineries and comprised of winery staff but anyone can put together or sponsor a team. “Each business works individually to best leverage the resources it has to offer. We couldn’t do what we do without the business community,” says Gentille.

Currently, the biggest gaps in services for youth aging out of care foster are lack of mental health services and housing and VOICES continues to look for ways to meet these needs. “There’s a lot of trauma in this group of individuals, and it impacts their ability to lead productive lives,” says Gentille.

Nontraditional Youth Leaders

The Youth Leadership Institute (YLI) was founded 25 years ago in Marin County, with the intent to help young people effectively communicate with adult community leaders to drive the change they wanted to see in their communities. Today, YLI operates programs across California’s Central Valley and Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, emphasizing values of community, inclusion, innovation and social justice, and serving nontraditional youth leaders who are 90 percent people of color and 70 percent from low-income communities. YLI also provides training and consulting services nationally and internationally to more than 220 communities.

In Marin County, YLI’s focus is on leadership development, health equity and community organizing. The organization is present in all of the secondary schools in Novato and also provides youth development programs to students at San Rafael High, Tierra Linda, Branson, Redwood, Drake, Marin Academy, Del Mar School, Marin Catholic, San Dominico and Miller Creek Middle School. One of the programs YLI has long been involved with is the Marin County Youth Commission (MCYC). Founded in 1969, MCYC is one of the oldest in the United States. Applications become available every spring and, each year, 20 youth between the ages of 12 to 22 from various socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds are appointed by the Marin County Board of Supervisors to serve on the commission. Appointments are for one year but if a young person joins when they’re in middle school or early in high school, often they choose to stay on for multiple years. They’re the political voice of the youth of Marin, interacting with the Board of Supervisors as well as other county and community policy makers.

YLI backs the MCYC by supporting members as they conduct community-based research that helps develop impactful youth advocacy and social justice campaigns. Through YLI’s combined service regions, the organization has helped youth advocate for 103 different policies that have since become couny and city laws spanning Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Fresno counties and the cities within. 

YLI in Marin also supports a network of nine Friday Night Live (FNL) chapters. FNL is part of the California Friday Night Live Partnership (CFNLP) with chapters located throughout the state (Napa and Sonoma Counties each have their own). The goal of FNL is to build partnerships for positive and healthy youth development that engage youth as active leaders and resources in their communities. The work is student driven with adult support, with FNL projects focusing on promoting lifestyles that are free of alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse.

YLI also coordinates the Marin County Communities Mobilizing for Change on Alcohol (CMCA) coalition, a group dedicated to discouraging underage drinking and reducing the impacts of alcohol in their communities. It’s a multi-generational coalition comprised of youth, school, community, policy, prevention and nonprofit stakeholders. “It used to be, when dealing with youth and public health, everything was ‘Just say no.’ Evidence shows that approach—treating youth as the problem instead of as a potential solution to community challenges—is ineffective. YLI invests in strategies to work with youth and adult partners, teaching them research skills and how to advocate for the change they want to see,” says Jonathan Marker, chief executive officer of YLI.

Marker says one of YLI’s foundational beliefs is that society isn’t at its full potential because youth aren’t at the table. “Through investing in our community, a connectedness happens,” he says. “We find that when people open up, they begin to value their community. They’re more likely to engage, be a partner and not operate as an individual. We have to make the space to create inherent partnerships so we can work together and craft the changes we would like to see.”

YLI engages with the business community to support its mission by asking companies to be financial sponsors. Eighteen months ago, only 1 percent of YLI’s annual giving was contributed by individuals and businesses, but now the organization’s giving has grown to 7 percent. But it’s not just about donations. YLI is partnering with businesses more often in coalition work and finding that what young people want for their communities is often also what businesses want. “When businesses lend their voices, side-by-side, with young people, it shapes the community in ways that reflect the people who are living and working there,” says Marker.

“We know that the success of our work with CMCA is grounded not just in the voices of youth, but in youth and when business leaders sitting together with elected officials and learning they have the same priorities for our community,” Marker continues. “Business leaders and youth working together help shape our community.”

Youth are our future

Marker notes there’s significant disparity in racial, gender and economic equality for youth and that the recognition of inequities along those lines can provide opportunities for youth to address important cultural issues. Youth can tackle these matters by interacting with their schools, businesses, government and other community sectors. “I love working with youth, because they continue to push my own thinking about these concerns as well,” says Marker.

All youth are our future—not just the ones who come up with brilliant ideas for new technologies, or the ones enrolled in Ivy League colleges or involved with programs like the Future Leaders of America. At-risk youth, who’ve been through the school of hard knocks, have valuable lessons to share. We need to focus on their assets and potential as a positive resource for strengthening communities and improving society, and build on the notion of reciprocal obligation so they understand how important their contributions are. SAY, On the Move and YLI are just three of the many organizations that are partnering with businesses in their communities to make those changes happen.

Everyone Deserves a Second Chance

As a national organization, Boys & Girls Club of America is well known for its focus on providing young people with opportunities to make friends, build character and attain educational success. Over its more than 150 years, in addition to social outlets and community building, the organization has provided a safe haven for countless at-risk youth all across the United States. There are six Boys & Girls Clubs organizations serving Napa, Marin and Sonoma counties.

Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County, for example, currently serves 6,000 young people (ages 6 to 18) at 32 locations in Cloverdale, Geyserville, Healdsburg, Guerneville, Monte Rio, Windsor, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. In addition to those club facilities, it also provides services inside the county’s Juvenile Hall, reaching approximately 50 individual youth weekly (about 350 annually). Started in October 2011, the program helps these at-risk youth become academically successful, make healthy life choices and demonstrate good character while encouraging them to lead crime-free lives upon their release.

“We’re offering hope and opportunity for youth while they’re facing their most difficult challenges,” says Shannon Nichols, vice president of resource development of Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County.

The REACH (Re-Entering our community to Achieve academic success, good Character and a Healthy lifestyle) program offers continued support following release from Juvenile Hall by matching each youth with a highly trained and well-qualified mentor who works with probation, parents and other community partners to help the youth remain on the right side of the law. Mentors work with club members for 12 to 18 months to provide continuity, a positive youth-development framework for successful re-entry and to diminish the chance of repeat offenses. The program works diligently to have every REACH member securely housed, employed and enrolled in school within 30 days of their release.

“The youth at Juvenile Hall and in our REACH program truly are the ones who need us most,” says Jennifer Weiss, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County. “Without our services, 85 percent will continue to commit crimes upon their release, but for our REACH members, this number drops to 8 percent.”

The juvenile hall and REACH programs cost $330,605 annually, while the organization’s secured income is just $272,000. This means an additional $58,605 is required to maintain the program. The organization is seeking grant funding and private donations to bridge the gap so that it can continue providing these unique and very necessary services. To find out how you can help, contact Shannon Nichols at (707) 528-7977 or


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