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Add TLT to SAY and what do you get?

Two Sonoma County nonprofits expect their merger will improve local teens’ access to outside-of-school education and experiences that may enhance their leadership, their communication and social skills, their readiness for college and careers and their likelihood of contributing positively to the community.

Tomorrow’s Leaders Today, a competitive program that each year exposes about 140 high school juniors to how government, business and other aspects of society work, is joining Social Advocates for Youth.

SAY is the service agency that provides housing, counseling, job training and other services to teens and young adults, many of them in jeopardy of becoming homeless or incarcerated. As SAY absorbs Tomorrow’s Leaders Today, it also is proceeding with work to convert Santa Rosa’s former Warrack Hospital into a residential and services center for as many as 63 homeless young people aged 18 to 24.

The three people paid to operate TLT will become employees of Social Advocates for Youth, and three members of the dissolving Tomorrow’s Leaders Today board of directors will join the SAY board.

“This is something we took a long time thinking about,” said Matt Martin, chief of Social Advocates for Youth. He said the leaders of both organizations came to agree that to merge would save administrative costs and combine the strengths of two successful nonprofits dedicated to empowering youth.

“We can do more together than we could have done apart,” Martin said.

The head of the Tomorrow’s Leaders Today board, Veronica King, said Martin and the other leaders of Social Advocates for Youth have done much to improve the lives of teens and young adults in the county.

“We have a lot to benefit from their success,” said King, an executive with Bank of Marin in Santa Rosa, “so it’s an exciting journey.”

Tomorrow’s Leaders Today was created in 1991 as a self- supporting program of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. A prime instigator in its founding was Sharon Wright, for 12 years the director of the chamber’s Leadership Santa Rosa program. Each year, the program exposes a class of adults to local decision-makers and issues in arenas that include government, planning and development, education, health care, environment, agriculture, social services and criminal justice.

Wright, Bill Carle and others involved with Leadership Santa Rosa agreed to create a junior division of the program for the benefit and development of teens.

High school juniors were invited to apply, with the members of each TLT class selected by panels of adults who read the students’ applications and interviewed them.

When the inaugural class convened in 1991, Tomorrow’s Leaders Today was the first such youth leadership program in California. After several years, the Chamber of Commerce dropped its sponsorship and TLT became an independent nonprofit. In its 23 years, about 1,500 youths have participated in the program.

Supported by donations, fundraisers and tuition, now $650, the group ran into a tough time a few years ago and teetered on insolvency. A new team of leaders fortified the organization and attracted community support that not only stabilized the program but allowed the awarding of up to $30,000 in scholarships for students unable to afford the tuition.

Tomorrow’s Leaders Today grew from the greater Santa Rosa area to both the southern and northern parts of Sonoma County. King said that this year, 143 juniors are enrolled in TLT, their primary commitment being to participate in one program day per month. Nearly 80 of those students attend the Santa Rosa-based program, 38 are enrolled in the program based in Windsor and 30 in the Petaluma-focused TLT.

All three branches will become part of Social Advocates for Youth. The TLT program was preparing to expand to include more career/college readiness through a grant-funded program that involves a partnership with the Sonoma County Office of Education. That expansion now will be overseen by SAY.

Wright, the Tomorrow’s Leaders Today co-founder and former Santa Rosa council member and mayor, said it seems a good time for the program to join and evolve with Social Advocates for Youth.

“You’ve got to reinvent yourself,” she said. “You keep doing the same thing over and over, and you get stale.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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