Senior community plays big role in opening SAY Dream Center

Even before plans to convert Santa Rosa’s old Warrack Hospital into transitional housing for young adults materialized, Social Advocates for Youth found support nearby at Spring Lake Village.

It was just a vague idea when SAY officials first dropped by the upscale senior community in east Santa Rosa in 2012 to discuss their services, said Patricia Wilson, a resident who sits on the outreach committee at Spring Lake Village. SAY hadn’t even announced publicly that Sutter Health had offered them for free the old hospital off Summerfield Road.

Residents immediately were on board when they heard about the Dream Center, said Wilson, who last week toured the facility for the first time since the center opened more than a month ago.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. “The world is for the youth. We need to do all we can to help them.”

Since that day, the senior community’s residents have backed their support of the center with donations that have totaled $120,000.

Residents at Spring Lake Village launched a fundraiser that first year, becoming the first group to donate money for the Dream Center. They collected more than $17,000 in donations while stationed outside their dining hall over the course of a week. It was far more money than SAY officials ever anticipated.

“I thought it would be $5,000,” said Cat Cvengros, SAY’s chief development officer.

The senior community, which 400 people call home, continued to back the Dream Center even as Bennett Valley residents challenged the project and argued it would bring troubled youth into their peaceful neighborhood. Spring Lake Village residents attended contentious community meetings, some wearing bright shirts that read “Say YES to Dreams” in support of the facility, which eventually will offer 63 short- and long-term housing units for 18- to 24-year-olds previously in foster care or at risk of homelessness.

They also continued to reach into their pockets. Fundraising grew substantially each year. This past year, they collected $36,000. More than a third of the residents have contributed, Wilson said.

They raised a total of $120,000 over the past four years. Their support was instrumental in the creation of the Dream Center, Cvengros said.

“It gave us a sense of confidence that the community would be behind it,” she said.

Resident Gwen Zeller, 82, was the one who first reached out to the nonprofit to make a presentation at Spring Lake back in 2012. Zeller, who chaired the outreach committee at the time, had spent 30 years as a foreign service and school nurse.

Eight of those years she worked in schools throughout Sonoma County, where she cared for many children who had special needs, were homeless or in foster care, daughter Saundra Guidry said.

Zeller saw the need in the community and wanted to help make the Dream Center a reality, added daughter Jacki Avila.

“She was really proud that it went through. It was one of those things that was really important to her,” Avila said.

With her daughters at her side, Zeller was among those honored at a dedication ceremony last week at the Dream Center. SAY officials named one of its courtyards after Spring Lake Village. They also named a room after Zeller.

“This is a jewel,” Zeller said at the Dream Center. “It was one of the few buildings that was empty that could handle this many people.”

The Dream Center almost didn’t happen, however. The facility faced intense opposition from some neighbors. SAY officials scaled back the project and enacted a number of measures to address concerns, but residents still filed a lawsuit in Sonoma County Superior Court in 2014 seeking to halt the project. They claimed the city failed to fully study the project’s impacts on noise and traffic.

The lawsuit was dismissed in January of last year and opponents later appealed. A ruling has not yet been made.

Sharon York, executive director at Spring Lake Village, said residents in her community felt a strong connection to the youth at SAY, which helps provide housing, counseling and jobs. They didn’t look at the young people with fear, but rather as children who were dealt a bad hand, she said.

“Through no fault of their own, they had a rough start in their life,” York said.

Cvengros said the residents didn’t offer support blindly. They wanted to know about the nonprofit’s finances, the success of its programs and how it planned to keep the center afloat in the future, she said. SAY served 4,700 youth countywide last year, she said.

“They have such a commitment to youth,” Wilson said. “They needed more space to blossom and become a bigger force.”

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