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PD Editorial: SAY’s half-century of helping Sonoma County youth

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Social Advocates for Youth was born in 1971 with a noble purpose — keeping Sonoma County youth out of jail and off the streets.

Fifty years later, SAY is providing wraparound services for teenagers and young adults who might otherwise end up homeless. The nonprofit organization is Sonoma County’s largest provider of safety net services for at-risk youth, and it is widely recognized as being among the most effective social service programs in the North Bay.

“Half a century on the front lines is something I’m extremely proud of,” said Anita Maldonado, the CEO of the nonprofit organization, which marked its anniversary with a celebration last weekend at the Finley Dream Center, an SAY facility that provides housing, job training and other assistance. “We’ve made a positive impact in the lives of nearly 60,000 young people.”

As it got off the ground in the early 1970s, SAY created counseling and advocacy programs. Over the years, the organization added employment services, started Sonoma County’s Youth Ecology Corps, saved a struggling grief counseling center, established the county’s only 24/7 youth crisis hotline and, hewing to its founding goals, set up gang prevention and tattoo removal programs.

SAY also plays a leading role in combating one of Sonoma County’s most intractable problems: homelessness.

No child imagines living on the streets when they grow up, but they do in alarming numbers. Sonoma County has counted as many as 1,128 unaccompanied children and transition-age youth in its annual homeless census. The number peaked in 2013, declining annually, except for 2019, to 305 in 2020.

It’s no secret that securing stable housing makes it easier to find work, attend school or address issues such as mental health or substance abuse — leading causes of homelessness. Housing has long been part of SAY’s mission, and its shelters and other facilities aim to help at-risk youth overcome barriers and develop the skills they need to secure long-term housing and employment.

Tamayo Village, a 25-bed facility in Santa Rosa opened in 2005, offering affordable housing, coupled with education and job services for young adults.

Ten years later, SAY added 63 more beds, plus services, for at-risk youth and young adults when it converted the former Warrack Hospital in Santa Rosa into the Finley Dream Center.

SAY also operates the Dr. James E. Coffee House, a shelter for youths 18 and under, and its Dream Center emegency shelter is the only dedicated shelter for transition-age youth between San Francisco and the Oregon border.

SAY’s housing programs place a special focus on former foster youth, who often find themselves on their own, without a place to stay or any adult guidance, once they turn 18.

In its most recent annual report, covering 2018-19, SAY said it helped 319 youths find stable housing, connected 206 youth to job readiness and work experience programs, positioning them to support themselves, and provided mental health services for 1,700 clients.

The organization’s $5.7 million in annual revenue placed it 68th in The Press Democrat’s 2021 ranking of the 100 largest nonprofit organizations in Sonoma County.

A thriving community needs a large network of charitable donors and nonprofit service providers. Sonoma County is lucky to have both. So, we wish SAY a happy birthday, with best wishes for 50 more years of support for the youth of Sonoma County.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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