By Aiyana Moya
A line of students from a variety of Watsonville schools on Wednesday filed through the Youth N.O.W. facility loading their backpacks with school supplies—from paper, tape and paints, to notebooks, pens and glue.
“It’s emotional. It’s emotional for my staff, it’s emotional for me … we’re all feeling it right now,” Youth N.O.W. Executive Director Michele Chaney said.
After more than 11 years of serving students in South County, Youth N.O.W., a nonprofit organization that offers students free tutoring services, after-school activities and a low-cost summer school program, is closing on Aug. 31 due to insufficient funding.
Youth N.O.W. served 14 schools throughout its operation and expanded its services to 16 schools during the pandemic. Staff offered virtual services and coordinated chrome book pick-ups, and they stepped in to assist students with internet access. Wanting to continue to provide students with a place to go, it offered its summer program in 2020 and this summer.
When his daughter, who is participating in Youth N.O.W.’s summer program, told him about the nonprofits’ imminent closure, Pajaro Valley Unified School District Trustee Daniel Dodge, Jr. was shocked.
“I didn’t believe it,” Dodge said. “They offered so many great programs to people. [Youth N.O.W.’s closure] affects students and children in my neighborhood and around the county.”
Dodge enrolled his daughter in the summer program as a way to keep her occupied, and also to ensure she was in a safe environment while he worked—her mother had concerns about who his daughter was hanging out with, and also about her staying home alone all day.
Initially, his teenage daughter was hesitant about the program. But as the summer progressed, she made connections with students from around the county and had her day filled with activities from hiking to going to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and she began to look forward to the summer program.
“It was five days a week from nine to five. What other program are you going to pay $50 a week for a whole day packed with activities?” Dodge said.
One of Youth N.O.W.’s goals is to ensure all its services are accessible to students of all backgrounds, especially given its students are primarily children from working-class families.
“Even the smallest amount of fees can prohibit a student from being able to access services,” Chaney said. “[We want students] to see the potential that they have no matter where they’re from. Most of them are just needing academic support and somewhere to be after school when parents are working.”
While Youth N.O.W.’s closure means there is one less place for students to access essential services free of charge, Chaney is optimistic about other organizations stepping in to provide similar services and fill this need for students. She also knows that the connections students made at the organization will have last beyond Youth N.O.W.’s closure.
“There’s a lot of laughter around here today. There’s of course a lot of questions, a lot of tears from staff and students. They’re sad. But at the same time, they’ve made so many new friends together … And I know that there will be other programs that are realizing that there’s that gap to fill with Youth N.O.W. closing,” Chaney said.
When he heard of Youth N.O.W.’s closure, Darren Gertler, Environmental Science Workshop coordinator, found time to drive the workshop’s mobile classroom to the Youth N.O.W. parking lot with a few staff members.
“I just wanted to connect and hopefully find some recruits from Youth N.O.W. students,” he said. “It’s important we work together and I want these students to know there are alternatives; they are all welcome to take part in our program as well.”
ESW is a free, drop-in program under the city of Watsonville’s umbrella where young people can stop by and use, among other things, power tools, art supplies, books and computers in a host of projects, from building birdhouses, cooking, sewing and bike repair to playing music.
The common thread that connects these organizations is that they provide a safe place where youth can go and feel that they belong, and provide students with the resources and connections to succeed, Chaney said.
“I’m just really glad that I know personally that some kids are on a better track, having been through Youth N.O.W.,” Chaney said.
Pajaronian reporter Tarmo Hannula contributed to this story — Editor