By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Worried about the youth of today? If so, a look at Sonoma Valley Teen Services in Boyes Hot Springs might ease your mind.
Teen Services, the result of a 2010 merger between Valley of the Moon Teen Center and Operation Youth, helps children 13-18 develop business and other skills through real-world experience. Under the organization’s broad umbrella of programs, teens manage and run a variety of small businesses. In the process they earn money, take on responsibility, learn how to work with others, and much more.
There are currently around 700 teens registered with Teen Services, although not all are actively involved on a regular basis.
The positive track record of Teen Services has garnered solid support from community organizations, including Speedway Children’s Charities, the Stewardship Council, and Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers. In 2011, Teen Services’ “Skills for Life” program was awarded a $100,000 grant by Impact100 Sonoma.
“The secret of our success,” says Cristen Lawrence, one of the organizations two program managers, “is in really listening to the kids, in seeing them as the experts. We step back and give them the space to run the program, to run with their ideas. By giving them support and resources, but not running it for them, they end up with an immense sense of accomplishment.”
And sometimes the experience changes their lives in major ways.
Jason Davis, a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, began coming to Teen Services in 2007 and credits his time there with making him become “a much more confident person. They’re with you 100% in doing what you want to do, finding out about the things you want to do. I definitely wouldn’t be at UC Santa Cruz without their help.”
Seventeen-year-old Dora Barerra says that she “used to be really, really shy. But because of what I’ve learned here I know how good I am talking with people and selling products. I also learned that it’s important to try new things to figure out what I like and don’t like. And I made wonderful friendships here, the kind that will last my life.”
The programs that teens participate in running are:
- A bakery called Lovin’ Oven, which sells its baked goods and prepared products at farmers markets, parties, and other events. Teens learn to bake, work closely together in the kitchen, sell to customers, and more.
- The No Name Cyber Café, located at Sonoma Valley High School, serves smoothies and snacks during lunch, breaks, sports games, and after school. Skills learned include customer service, running a cash register, inventory control, and marketing
- The Shop, located on 8th Street East in Sonoma, is an event center for music, movies, dances, video game competition, and open mic nights. Acquired skills include booking bands, planning/advertising events, and stocking/running the refreshment booth. “Kids come to us with an idea for an event where they can raise some money,” Lawrence said. ” They learn how to run an event with our help, and they make a little money.”
- The Gallery, an art studio/gallery featuring teens’ artwork, allows participants to not only sell the works they’ve created, but understand the basics of running an art gallery.
A recent program addition is the Ragazzi Popup Restaurant. “Loosely translated, ‘ragazzi’ means youth,” said Lawrence. “It takes over a location for a day–a museum, an empty warehouse, a restaurant that’s not in use. Then it disappears and pops up later somewhere else.”
Sixteen-year-old Julie Tirado signed on for the first Ragazzi, which required 20 hours of training before the event. “It was great,” she said. “I learned how to work a restaurant’s front of the house, from using proper verbiage to posture, how we should walk and address our guests, setting the table with everything aligned, and how to keep a peaceful environment.”
Teen Services also offers numerous services that enhance what teens learn in the business programs, or help them excel personally in other ways.
The Skills for Life program brings in experts from the community to give valuable instruction in important life areas. In March, for example, Fran Meininger, who owns fashion consignment shop My Girlfriend’s Closet, showed teens what to wear on job interviews and helped them pick out appropriate clothing.
Late last year local bankers held a multi-session financial literacy seminar that covered how to mange bank accounts, college savings plans, wise use of debit/credit cards, and other matters.
“It was very helpful,” said Dora Barerra, 17. “I never knew credit could get you in so much trouble.” She later took a tour of WestAmerica Bank, where she “became interested in working in a bank. I’m really good at math, and I know I want to do something in business.”
Other valuable services include Art Wednesday, a free art studio open to teens each Wednesday; free tutoring; Teen Safe Ride (vouchers for a free taxi ride if a teen is in an unsafe situation); monthly hikes, mountain bike trips and other outdoor adventures.
Another valuable component of Teen Services is its Valley of the Moon Teen Center in Boyes Hot Springs, which offers a gym, computer access, swimming pool, foosball tables, basketball courts, and various sports and art programs.
Not least is the daily “health meal,” served each evening at 5 p.m. in the Teen Center (it’s free). “It gives the kids a sense of community,” Lawrence said. “They often cook together and then they sit down together, talk about what happened in their day. Many of these kids have never done that before.”
She adds: “In the end it’s about igniting some sense of passion in the kids’ lives. So often they have a sense of hopelessness about the future, especially in this economy. We give them an opportunity to try different things, get some skills, feel positive about the future.
“They walk away with a sense of empowerment and a self confidence that they can bank on. That’s priceless.”