New community center aims to change youth outcomes

WATSONVILLE—A new community center is set to open in Watsonville on Wednesday, with the goal of supporting local at-risk youth and their families.

The Luna y Sol Familia Center at 14 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 necessities , health and education support, employment assistance, community involvement and more. Youth on probation, who have spent time in juvenile hall, or who are considered “high risk” of, among other things, using drugs and alcohol, joining a gang, or not receiving the tutoring they need is welcome at the centre. Their families are also welcome.

“Especially with Covid, and all the isolation…it’s really affected people’s lives,” said CAB program director Maria Rodriguez. “A lot is happening. We’ve had stabbings, an increase in crime… We’re really committed to this community, to be able to have a safe space for young people to go. To be understood. We are not judging here. We are an open space where families can come and connect.

In 2020, CAB received a grant from the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) to establish a service center for youth and their families to receive “wraparound” services – or the process of surrounding a child who has serious emotional and behavioral problems. problems with day-to-day services and interventions by providers and their friends, family and others in their community.

The nonprofit had applied in early 2020, when Covid-19 hit the county, and was approved for funding in July. They were able to hire staff and, in October, began working through individual case management services, by appointment only or via Zoom.

But the center itself had to wait.

“During the pandemic, we were looking for spaces to rent,” Rodriguez said. “We overcame many challenges. There were spaces available that were open to businesses and retail, but not nonprofits.

Eventually, they found a home at First Christian Church on the corner of Madison Street and East Lake Avenue. The owners allowed CAB to carry out renovations, remove carpets and redesign the bedrooms and offices inside the two-story building.

“It was a nice place and the rent was doable,” Rodriguez said. “Most of the furniture, 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 center, which includes homework and computer stations, as well as a “hangout” lounge with games. There is also a gymnasium, which will host indoor events and sports activities.

The second floor houses offices and the Community Hall, which includes space where families can meet for programs such as the Cara y Corazon Parent Engagement Group. And outside, in the yard, young people can hang out during programming and participate in outdoor recreational activities.

Before the official opening of the center on Wednesday, the CAB had gradually invited young people and their families to visit the space.

“We did a soft open,” Rodriguez said. “We brought in our customers, we got them used to it. We just had our first in-person Cara y Corazon session…Families said they felt really comfortable being here, which is great. It’s so phenomenal to see things fall into place.

The center will be able to provide outreach services to 150 youth per year, including comprehensive services for 75, in conjunction with the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Probation Department, CAB’s Alcance Program, Santa Cruz County Day, Pajaro Valley Unified School District Family Engagement Wellness Center and many more.

“We have very high-risk young people here, dealing 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 buy some shoes… Our staff is there to help them navigate the systems. And sometimes young people are more comfortable reaching out to someone who isn’t in their family.

CAB employment specialist Alexander Zarazua said centers like Luna y Sol can change people’s lives. Such a program did it for him in high school.

“I grew up in Watsonville, with a single mom,” Zarazua said. “My brother and other members of my family have been affected by gangs. I needed a lot of advice, especially (to) avoid gangs. It would have been easy for me to go through that. I was just surrounded by it, I didn’t know any better.

Zarazua said it was a high school work program that kept him busy and on the right track.

“I have an income and I could help my mother,” he said. “It gave me the skills and confidence to go to college and apply for jobs. It’s so important for young people to have a center like this because I can see the great things that have been done for me.

Zarazua said he has already helped several young people find jobs.

“So far we’ve had a very good success rate,” he said. “We have placed eight of our nine young people on the job market… They are so happy, excited to have their first job.

Wednesday’s grand opening will include a ribbon-cutting ceremony, food, resource tables, games and raffles, as well as speeches and testimonials from young people. Guests were also invited inside for small group tours. Masks will be mandatory.

Rodriguez said she was optimistic about the future of Luna y Sol, but acknowledged that as a non-profit organization they will need community support.

“We will need to work strategically with our Board of Directors, our Executive Director [MariaElena De La Garza] and our partners to ensure that we continue to secure funding, beyond this initial grant,” she said. “We cannot do this alone. It has to be a partnership. »

For more information about Luna y Sol, call 831-332-9041, visit or follow social media.

Jill E. Washington