By Gwendolyn Wu
The St. George Family Youth Center officially opened its new location on Oct. 13 at 889 Camino del Sur. Back in 2012, the Isla Vista Recreation and Parks District board voted to grant the group a 25-year land lease in order to create an updated facility for children and teens living in Isla Vista and Northern Goleta.
The purpose of the youth center, which has been around for 16 years through the YMCA Youth and Family Services, is to bring after-school programming and community support to youths living in Isla Vista. Throughout the years, young students have studied in a double-wide mobile home and rooms at Isla Vista Elementary school, but have not found a permanent home. The opening of the center next to Estero Park provides a quiet refuge where they have access to multiple resources. While the soft opening was two weeks prior, the grand opening of the 3,200 sq. ft. location on Oct. 13 commemorated the members of the community who have worked to make this a reality.
St. George Family Youth Center serves more than 150 low income youth each year, where more than 90 percent of the youth identify as Latino, according to a press release. A survey done in 2014 showed that 85 percent of the youth said they have experienced greater success in school due to the center, and 92 percent plan to attend college.
Anecdotes from the community inspire the workers at the youth center to continue creating a safe haven for children to go to after school. When the center was opened in 1999, drug use and gang activity were problematic in the Isla Vista community, and advocates sought to fix that.
IV resident Cecilia Herrera spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 13. Her step-daughter went through the program when she came to Isla Vista, and Herrera described it as a success.
“After a year, the miracle happened — she went from F’s to B’s, from bad and destructive behavior to good behavior. Now, she’s in college, working part-time in San Francisco,” Herrera said to praise and applause from the audience. “This place means a lot to the Isla Vista community because it provides a safe place for youths to grow, to learn and become productive adults. Here, they learn how to keep themselves from drugs, gangs, pregnancy and trouble.”
Funding for the center primarily came from Ed St. George, a Santa Barbara local and the owner of various IV properties. Isla Vista Tenants’ Union, Associated Students and UCSB’s chapter of Alpha Phi sorority also contributed donations to the construction of the center.
“It’s a privilege to be able to support a thriving organization making a real difference for youth under 18-years-old in Isla Vista,” said St. George in a press release. “Youth and Family Services YMCA has offered a safe space for thousands of youth to grow throughout the years; it’s time they finally had a place to call home.”
The center, built by ON Design Architects, mimics the architectural style of Campus 880, across from where the center is located. The building boasts a few amenities, such as a ping-pong table, pool table, expanded computer lab, exercise equipment and study space. Splashed across the walls are inspirational quotes, including “Failure is not having the courage to try” and “Sing like nobody’s listening,” while the bathrooms are filled with students’ chalk art to decorate the new space. Volunteers and staff provide mentorship programs and tutoring services through the center.
UCSB students continue to be heavily involved in mentoring students who come through the center. Through mentorship programs in the sciences and arts, many of those who work and volunteer with the center have gotten the chance to show students possible hobbies and career paths that they previously did not get the chance to explore.
Fourth-year sociology major Francesca Sen began working with the teen center prior to the transition. “I’ve always noticed that there were children here,” Sen said. In her time working with the center, she has seen boys and girls at the center begin learning about lighting and special effects for Halloween, tutoring and various theater projects.
For fourth-year theater major and IV Arts assistant Tommy Miller, the center has not only been a way to further his work as a theater instructor in the community, but also a rewarding experience.
“It’s fun, it’s a blessing, it’s an honor,” Miller said. “I had a group of six high schoolers from the teen center over summer, and seeing them go from sitting on opposite sides of the room to becoming very close friends, and laughing, exchanging stories and just having a good time together, was just huge. That’s why I think theater has the ability to bring people together, whether it’s on stage or in the audience.”