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Living in Limbo

Sonoma County ranks high for 'disconnected youth'—those out of school and unable to find a job—and reversing the trend isn't easy

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"Any young person has the potential to become disconnected if they are not given the appropriate support and access to quality educational programs," Noe says. "We also know that place matters, and that foster youth who age out of the system at 18 are at higher risk; we can't let these facts dictate who is successful and who is not. Our community has a responsibility to all young people."

Fortunately, Sonoma County has a good number of nonprofit groups squarely aimed at building possibilities for younger residents. VOICES Sonoma, located in a gray Victorian house near the corner of Mendocino and College avenues in Santa Rosa, is a youth-centered nonprofit that provides transitional services, from food to employment to educational guidance, for foster, homeless and at-risk youth.

BRIGHTER DAY Jimmy Toro outside VOICES, which provides counseling and guidance to homeless and at-risk youth. - LEILANI CLARK
  • Leilani Clark
  • BRIGHTER DAY Jimmy Toro outside VOICES, which provides counseling and guidance to homeless and at-risk youth.

"It's a space to deconstruct and reconstruct," says Jimmy Toro, a youth founder since the center opened in 2009. The bright-faced, 23-year-old operations assistant in a yellow-sleeved sweatshirt has a clear passion for his work, evident during a tour of the warm, welcoming space.

Throughout the afternoon, the house buzzes with teens and young adults using desktop computers, sitting underneath colorful bulletin boards rife with employment and education resources; they eat healthy, donated food in the upstairs kitchen; they hang out chatting in the foyer and on couches in the cozy common room. Up to 24 youth may come through the door in a given hour, looking for community, safety or just a bite to eat. Once inside, they discover tutoring and workshops on job readiness and development and financial aid assistance.

Humans are physically and emotionally hard-wired for connection, writes Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work. A 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health shows that the shame and pain of social rejection and disconnection is as real as physical pain—with potentially devastating effects.

Amber Twitchell, program director at VOICES, feels that it's the responsibility of adults, employers and nonprofit agencies to foster a sense of connectedness between young adults and their greater community. If we don't, she adds, then we really have lost our disconnected youth.

"When we think of Sonoma County," says Twitchell, "we think of affluent communities, but there really is this undervalue of young people that either came out of the foster system or the probation system or just didn't have good families or didn't complete high school who are now just kind of hanging out there."

Part of the challenge lies in the fact that some youth don't understand how to navigate work and educational systems, says Michelle Revecho, program manager at the Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) employment center.

"Ask people when they got their first job, and a lot of times they say my parents knew somebody, or a coach or their parents helped with a résumé," she says. "A lot of these youth don't have those networks or those connections that they can tap into."

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