The tragic death of 24-year-old Michela Anne Wooldridge, who was found stabbed to death in downtown Santa Rosa early on Nov. 1, should serve as a wake-up call to all of us here in Sonoma County.
There are far too many young people who are not successfully making the often difficult transition to adulthood. Sadly, this story of a young mother who struggled with addiction issues and an unstable living arrangement is not uncommon among today's youth. While the recession has taken its toll on people of all ages, it has made it extremely challenging for many youth to get traction on the road to a bright future. What makes Wooldridge's story especially tragic is that Sonoma County has resources available that could have helped this young woman find a better path. Unfortunately, few families and struggling youth know where to turn for help.
We will never know for sure if Wooldridge's life would have been saved if she had been able to participate in any of the several programs available in Sonoma County youths ages 18-24 (called transitional age youth). What her death does is inform us that we need to do more to educate the public about how to access programs that address the unique needs of at-risk transitional age youth.
Many young people between the ages of 18 and 24 find it difficult to get on the path to self reliance. Lacking financial resources, and in some cases basic life skills, they struggle to create or maintain stability in their lives. Far too many of Sonoma County's youth find themselves without support and without any of the tools necessary to realize their potential. They may drop out of school, turn to drugs, become homeless and lose hope.
We need to improve the public's awareness about resources for young people, and we must better coordinate available programs to reach at-risk youth earlier so that their adult lives begin on more stable footing. Toward this end, Sonoma County Health Services recently launched Cradle to Career, an initiative to address the needs of youth between the ages of 16 and 19 who are neither enrolled in school nor employed. This group of "disconnected youth" are at much greater risk to substantial periods of unemployment, homelessness, involvement with the criminal justice system and poverty. Helping these youth become productive and emotionally stable will produce enormous social benefits for society at large, as well as for youth themselves.
While extraordinarily tragic, hopefully Wooldridge's death can serve as a lesson to us all to become familiar with the available resources to help other young adults in the same situation get the help and support they need.
There is hope. Social Advocates for Youth, VOICES (Voice Our Independence Choice for Emancipation Support), Petaluma People Services Center, the Community & Family Services Agency, Sonoma County Adult Youth Development, the Center for Social and Environmental Stewardship, Restorative Resources and Sunny Hills Services are just a few of the resources Sonoma County youth and families can turn to for help.
While 18-year-olds are adults by legal definition, they are often far from ready to assume the responsibilities of adulthood, which means truly living on their own, navigating complicated health and education systems and earning enough income to be self-sufficient. They need help. We want to encourage this community to continue the effort to provide services to wrap our arms around our young people who are struggling with their transition into adulthood. We know we need to reach more Michela Wooldridges earlier. We can do a better job — together.
<i>Shirlee Zane is chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Matt Martin is executive director of Social Advocates for Youth.</i>