A new community center opened in Watsonville on Wednesday, with the goal of supporting local at-risk youth and their families.
The Luna y Sol Familia Center at 15 Madison St. is a program of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB) that aims to provide children and young adults (ages 12-24) with basic needs, health and education support, employment assistance, community engagement and more. Youth on probation, who have spent time in juvenile hall or are considered “high-risk” of, among other things, using drugs and alcohol, joining a gang or not receiving the academic help they need are welcome at the center. Their families are also welcome.
“Especially with Covid, and all the isolation … it’s really affected people’s lives,” said CAB Programs Director Maria Rodriguez. “There is a lot going on. We’ve had stabbings, a rise in crime … We are really committed to this community, to be able to have a safe space for youth to go to. To be understood. We don’t judge here. We’re an open space for families to come and connect.”
In 2020, CAB received a grant from the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) to create a service center for youth and their families to receive “wrap-around” services—or the process of surrounding a child who has serious emotional and behavioral issues with day-to-day services and interventions from providers as well as their friends, family and others within their community.
The nonprofit had applied in early 2020, when Covid-19 hit the county, and was approved for the funding that July. They were able to hire staff, and by October started working through case management one-on-one services, by appointment only or via Zoom.
But the center itself had to wait.
“Through the pandemic, we were looking for spaces to rent,” Rodriguez said. “We faced a lot of challenges. There were spaces available that were open for businesses and retail, but not nonprofits.”
Finally, they found a home at the First Christian Church, on the corner of Madison Street and East Lake Avenue. The owners allowed CAB to do some remodeling, removing carpets and redesigning rooms and offices inside the two-story building.
“It was a nice place, and the rent was doable,” Rodriguez said. “Most of the furniture, the desks, chairs, game tables, were all donated to us. The response from the community has been great, there is so much support.”
On the first floor is the Youth Drop-In Center, which includes homework and computer stations, and a “hangout” lounge with games. There is also a gymnasium, which will host indoor events and athletic activities.
The second floor holds offices and the Community Room, which includes a space for families to meet for programs such as the Cara y Corazon Parent Engagement Group. And outside in the courtyard, youth can hang out during programming and participate in outdoor recreation.
Before the center’s grand opening, CAB had been gradually inviting youth and their families to check out the space.
“We’ve been doing a soft opening,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been bringing our clients in, getting them used to it. We just held our first in-person Cara y Corazon session … Families said they felt really comfy being here, which is great. It’s so phenomenal to see things come together.”
The center will be able to provide outreach to 150 youth per year, including wrap-around services for 75, working in tandem with the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Probation Department, CAB’s Alcance program, the Day Worker Center of Santa Cruz County, Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s Family Engagement Wellness Center and many others.
“We have youth here who are very high-risk, who deal with gangs, child abuse, mental health … some of the cases are really intense,” Rodriguez said. “It’s so important for us to be here and help them however we can. Even if they just need a haircut, or need to buy shoes … Our staff is here to help support them, to navigate systems. And sometimes youth are more comfortable reaching out to someone who is not in their family.”
Alexander Zarazua, an employment specialist at CAB, said that centers like Luna y Sol can change people’s lives. One such program did that for him in high school.
“I grew up in Watsonville, with a single mom,” Zarazua said. “My brother and other family was affected by gangs. I needed a lot of guidance, especially (with) avoiding gangs. It would’ve been easy for me to go that way. I was just surrounded by it, I didn’t know any better.”
Zarazua said it was a high school working program that kept him busy and on the right path.
“I got some income and could help my mom,” he said. “It gave me the skills, the confidence to go to college and apply for jobs. It’s so important for youth to have a center like this because I can see the great things one did for me.”
Zarazua said they have already helped several young people find employment.
“So far we’ve had a really good success rate,” he said. “We placed eight out of nine of our youth into employment … They’re so happy, excited to have their first job.”
Wednesday’s grand opening included a ceremonial ribbon cutting, food, resource tables, games and raffles, as well as speeches and testimonials from youth. Guests were also invited inside for small group tours. Masks will be required.
Rodriguez said she was optimistic about the future of Luna y Sol, but recognized that as a nonprofit, they will need the community’s support.
“We’ll need to work strategically with our board of directors, executive director [MariaElena De La Garza] and our partners to make sure we will continue to get funding, beyond this initial grant,” she said. “We can’t do this alone. It has to be a partnership.”
For more information, call 831-322-9041 or visit cabinc.org.