As recently as the 1970s, it was illegal for a minor to run away from home for any reason, even in cases of abuse or neglect. When these children were found, they were often brought to juvenile hall.
“In 1971, there was a group of defense lawyers in Sonoma County working with these victimized children, seeing them be criminalized. They decided to create some sort of prevention service or safety net. Social Advocates for Youth was formed out of that call to action,” says Matt Martin, who joined SAY as development director in 2008 and was named CEO of the organization five years ago.
In the beginning, SAY worked with similar organizations in the western United Sates to change the runaway law and also provide counseling and support for children in need. It started with about one dozen kids in its program and a budget approaching $10,000. Today, SAY has an annual budget of close to $7 million and works with about 5,000 local youth as far north as Cloverdale and as far east as Sonoma Valley. It’s programs focus on three key areas: counseling, housing and jobs.
“Counseling is the biggest piece of the pie for us, both budget- and service-wise,” says Martin. “It’s about removing barriers so children, teens, young adults and their families can reach their full potential of feeling and thinking healthy.”
In partnership with the county’s behavioral health department and local school districts, SAY has mental health clinicians at 27 school campuses in addition to its own facilities throughout the county. About one year ago, SAY acquired WillMar Grief & Healing Center, which was about to close due to financial instability. WillMar works with children, teens and adults grieving due to the loss of a loved one.
In the 1990s, SAY began its jobs programs. “We work with the county’s human services department to provide work-based learning experience for young people. That includes working with the county’s workforce investment board and funding organizations like Sonoma County Water Agency,” says Martin. “We’re also part of the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps, which gives young people with barriers to employment an opportunity to gain transferrable workplace skills.
We also place young people in work-based learning situations at places like Boys & Girls Club, Redwood Empire Food Bank and even internships at for-profit businesses within growing employment sectors in Sonoma County. The Sonoma County Office of Education’s career pathways program connects in-school high schoolers with career pathways and workforce learning opportunities. Shadowing District Attorney Jill Ravitch for a day, working with Codding Construction, visiting Keysight Technologies. ”
“The city of Santa Rosa’s Violence Prevention partnership offers the chance to get experience and skills—to learn what it means to be a good employee—and carry those experiences forward. Sunflower Community Garden is a 1-acre plot at 7th and A streets in Santa Rosa. Young people run the urban farm and grow vegetables that are donated to Catholic Charities kitchen. We’ve been doing that for a few years now and it’s a really successful program, as is our partnership with Ceres Community Project [a nonprofit that teaches culinary skills and provides free, healthy meals to local individuals and families struggling with a health crisis].”
For all its work providing counseling, job training, educational and emotional support, SAY is probably best known for its innovative housing model. In 1991, it established the Dr. James E. Coffee Teen Shelter, which welcomes youths who are in crisis and runaway situations from ages 12 to 17; it also operates a street outreach program and a 24-hour call hotline.
The Mary and Jose Tamayo Village was opened in 2005. It’s a 25-unit facility offering affordable housing to transitional aged youth (18 to 24). At any given time, about one-third to one-half of residents are former foster care young people and the rest have been unstably housed (living in a car, on the street or couch surfing, for example).
Most recently, SAY consolidated its administrative offices and its employment and counseling services to the SAY Finley Dream Center in Bennett Valley. Housed in the decommissioned Warrack Hospital, which Sutter Health donated to SAY in 2014 for specifically this purpose, it adds 63 units of affordable housing. “Of those 63 units, 12 will be short-term housing for young people who need transitional support—directly coming from the street or another unstable housing situation,” says Martin. “They can stay with us for up to 180 days while they sort things out and find a long-term placement in one of SAY’s housing resources, including Tamayo Village, Dream Center or some sponsor-based rental assistance we do in the community.
“We’re really excited about how we’ve been able to widen our spectrum of housing opportunities for young people, because we feel that’s a truly necessary support. Especially given the tight rental market in general in Sonoma County.”
There’s so much going on at SAY—and so many ways for the community to help. “We offer monthly tours at Coffee House Teen Shelter, Tamayo Village, SAY Finley Dream Center and SAY WillMar Grief Services,” says Martin. “I think that’s a great starting point for anyone who’s interested in what we’re doing: Come see what we do, how we do it and why. Then let’s have a conversation about how you want to be involved. That’s a unique conversation for each individual, group, organization or business.”
Finally, when asked what this award means, Martin speaks from the heart: “The work SAY gets to do in our community is not about the agency. It’s about the young people we’re privileged to serve.
“The readers of NorthBay biz saying ‘yes’ to SAY is really those readers saying ‘yes’ to young people who’ve heard ‘no’ too many times in their lives. We applaud our community, our county and our region for standing up on behalf of our most vulnerable kids.”
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