Walnut Avenue Women’s Center helps local youth open up
It’s a quiet Friday afternoon in December at the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center in Downtown Santa Cruz, where the energy is one of a focused nonprofit working with its nose to the grind. The last thing I expect to hear is that, hours later, the locale will look like a bustling social hub.
“It’s going to turn into Club 303,” says Rita Martinico, WAWC’s director of Youth Development Services, noting the organization’s spot at 303 Walnut Ave. “Tonight is a big party.”
Not your usual Friday night soiree, this particular event will turn out to be a chance for volunteer mentors to socialize with prospective youth “mentees,” as Martinico nicknames them, for WAWC’s successful One-on-One effort. It’s a program that provides personal relationships with positive role models for kids ages 12 through 18. Dinner, music, plenty of friendly warmth and streamers as sparkling as the smiles will take over the lounge, which earlier in the day feels stark. The evening will host the beginning of some life-changing experiences.
Despite its name, the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center caters to more than just the needs of women. With programs open to youth and men, the nonprofit tirelessly works year-round to provide a safe place with supportive staff for various demographics.
One-on-One has paired 22 kids with adult mentors. The duos will hang out once a week for at least six months, enjoying activities and talking about whatever is on their mind. The nonprofit also hosts “Wise-Guys” and “Girl Talk” drop-in meetings (every Thursday), which provide a forum for boys and girls, respectively, ages 12 through 16 to connect with one another.
And then there’s “Girlzpace,” which offers a weekly meeting and nurturing environment for teen girls at three different locations throughout the county (WAWC, the Teen Trailer at San Lorenzo Valley High School, and the Watsonville Vet’s Hall). Girlzpace drop-in meetings are open to every high school-aged girl, and it’s a place where, according to Youth Leadership Coordinator Aleen Raybin, “they get a lot of support around their relationships with their friends, their romantic relationships, and it gives them an opportunity to really reflect on what’s important to them in order to make choices.”
Each program is led by volunteers who’ve been prepared by WAWC. Mentors underwent training for seven Saturdays spanning October through Thanksgiving. They learned about childhood domestic violence and harm reduction, what it means to be a youth advocate, how to communicate with at-risk youth, and how to facilitate groups as a mentor. Martinico says the training is “really intensive, and [participants] leave prepared not only to volunteer in our programs but also to work with youth and to work in general.”
Preventing teen pregnancy is another focus of WAWC. “Our passion is to provide support, role models, leadership opportunities and a safe place to talk about what [youth] are experiencing in their lives,” Martinico says. “This will then reduce teen pregnancy and teen dating violence and many, many other ‘risky’ behaviors.”
With budget cuts and the overall economic downturn, Martinico says that WAWC is seeking public support in the new year to continue these myriad social services.
“Right now we’re in a pretty rough place,” she tells me during an interview scheduled in between feverish grant writing. “With the amount of work that we have it’s kind of hard because we have so much work to do and we need money, so it’s hard to adjust the work schedule to create a fundraising event. Girlzpace is barely making it right now, so we’re trying to figure that out. We’re just trying to keep it all open.”
To learn more about Walnut Avenue Women’s Center programs, to volunteer, or to donate, call 426-3062 or go to wawc.org.