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New Petaluma center planned for at-risk kids

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A group of Petaluma nonprofits is creating an east side community center to reach some of the city’s most vulnerable residents — homeless and at-risk young adults.

The project at the Salvation Army’s South McDowell Boulevard facility is a convergence of efforts from service clubs, community leaders and nonprofits, and would allow Mentor Me, Petaluma People Services Center and the Salvation Army to work together to expand services and help youth who need a boost.

“The most exciting part is that we are finally finding ways to collaborate that don’t feel like more work and more confusion about who’s doing what,” Mentor Me’s Executive Director Deborah Dalton said. “We’re learning how to bring organizations together and collaborate in a really effective and powerful way.”

The project — dubbed the Transition Age Youth Service Alliance — is envisioned to be a “one-stop shop” for youth ages 16 to 24, a demographic that’s difficult to reach but in dire need of services, Dalton said. Though there’s still much work to do, she hopes the facility could open as soon as April.

“In Petaluma there is a high percentage of our homeless that are actually in this age group,” she said. “There’s a high percentage of these kids that are struggling in school or dropping out or that are out of school and unemployed … we get them, Petaluma People Services Center gets them and so does Salvation Army.”

At the center, Mentor Me will offer supportive relationships through mentoring while providing education and criminal justice services with its youth advocacy team. Petaluma People Services Center will handle counseling and housing issues and offer referrals to other services while Salvation Army will offer programs including assistance with food, substance abuse problems and shelter. Information about resources and services from Petaluma City Schools District will also be provided.

Exact numbers for Petaluma-based homeless youth were not available, but a 2017 point in time survey showed 532 homeless children and transition-age youth countywide.

The Petaluma Service Alliance and the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Class of 2018 have proposed to complete the remodel of the facility. Though plans are still being drawn, work will include a revamp of the front office, community areas, bathroom and kitchen areas, Salvation Army’s Petaluma Advisory Board Chairman David Adams said. It will include about 300 square feet of office spaces, he said.

Mentor Me, a nearly two decade old organization that pairs Petaluma youth with adult mentors, is headquartered at the Cavanagh Recreation Center on the west side of the city. More than half of the schools that partner with Mentor Me are on the east side, and the annex would also provide another convenient space for mentors and mentees to meet and for programming, Dalton said.

Dalton said she’s worked to design each room for “trauma informed care” with soft, bright and calming elements to help teens who have had traumatic experiences feel at ease. Providing kids with a space to meet their needs is a chief concern for PPSC’s Case Manager RK Wall-Polin. She works with youth employment programs at the nonprofit and will be involved at the new center.

“I really want the young adults we serve to feel comfortable coming in … and be able to walk in and grab a snack and work on a resume, check emails, print out documents, browse job listings but also to come in for one-on-one coaching or whatever needs they have and to be able to let me know of the things going on in their lives,” she said. “I want people to be able to come in regardless of their gender, documentation status, you name it, I want them to come in and be able to say it and name it and be accepted for it,” she said.

Reaching transition age youth is key, said Committee on the Shelterless’ CEO Mike Johnson, whose nonprofit serves the local homeless population. While homeless adults have foundations to build on, many kids don’t have the support or skills they need to succeed, making it difficult to break the cycle of poverty, he said.

“Aside from just the fact that they’re kids mostly coming of age, they’re subject to much higher rates of predatory behavior amongst that group,” Johnson said. “They’re preyed upon in various ways at higher levels than other homeless. Human trafficking, prostitution — these kinds of things are much bigger problems among homeless youth, who tend to be shelter resistant.”

Petaluma Salvation Army Major Mitham Clement declined to answer questions about the project, but said in an email he’s looking forward to the prospect of partnership.

“The Salvation Army is excited about the possibility to work with Mentor Me, PPSC and Leadership Class to provide the service to the youth in our community,” he wrote in a statement.

The effort resonated with the Leadership Class, a group of 25 business and community leaders who each year complete a local project, Onita Pellegrini, CEO of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce said. The class is hoping to raise about $10,000 for the work, though details of fundraising are still being ironed out, she said.

“It struck an immediate chord and was chosen as a class project,” Pellegrini said. “They’re doing a number of things at the center … all will be determined by how much money they raise.”

Maureen Frances, Petaluma Service Alliance’s project chairwoman, said the conglomeration of seven service clubs is working with the Salvation Army to identify the scope of needs. Members will complete the labor and turn to the community for help as needed, she said.