Jerome Park in Santa Ana on May 11, 2023. Credit: Daniel Estrada, The Santanero

Santa Ana is one of the youngest cities in Orange County, with 1 in 4 residents being less than 18 years old and a median age of 32.6 years old in 2020. And yet, we have no city-funded youth center. While only 10 percent of Santa Ana’s residents are older than 65 years old, we have two city-funded senior centers: the Santa Ana Senior Center and the Southwest Senior Center.

The same opportunities must be offered to our youth. Santa Ana City Council must include a youth center in this year’s budget.

This year, the Santanero Project, a community-based, youth-led empowerment group, launched a survey and conducted focus groups to understand how youth felt about establishing a city-funded youth center.

So far, our survey has garnered a total of 51 responses from youth ages 13-20 who represent all zip codes in the City of Santa Ana. Our respondents identified as first-generation college students, low-income residents, immigrant/DACAmented/undocumented youth, systems-impacted youth, foster/homeless youth, and LGBTQ+.

  • 83% stated that having a space where they could be with other young people their age was “important” or “very important” to them
  • 39% felt the City of Santa Ana “definitely” or “probably” does not have enough free youth spaces for them to hang out with their friends after school
  • 74% stated that they “definitely” or “probably” would go to a city-funded, youth-led space or center if one existed in Santa Ana

Some youth emphasized the importance of having a space that offers free recreational activities.

“Whenever I hang out with friends or other people my age, it is always a question of whether the outing will be free and/or safe. Creating youth spaces is something objectively important if we wish to see young people thrive in the city.” – Godinez, 11th Grade

Other youth stressed the importance of socially connecting with others their age: “I personally think it is important to have a safe space to talk with other people my age because sometimes we don’t all have people to go talk to or people who ‘get’ or ‘understand’ us.”

The importance of having a space to cultivate supportive friendships cannot be understated. A 2022 National Survey by the Trevor Project found that 50% of LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-17 had contemplated suicide, and 18% had attempted. However, LGBTQ+ youth who had highly supportive friendships reported a 29% decrease in suicide attempts, compared to youth who received low to moderate support from friends.

We selected 10 of our survey respondents for a Youth Steering Committee to discuss their opinions further through group interviews.

  • Lack of Recreational Spaces: Students emphasized that there aren’t enough safe spaces for recreational use, and that most youth spaces that do exist in Santa Ana are focused on academics.
  • Few Spaces for Young Adults: While some of the high school students we interviewed were able to participate in college prep programs or teen programming after school, youth who had already graduated high school reported not having many places to go after class or work. While the Santa Ana Public Library and the Salgado Community Center have youth spaces and programming, they are geared towards youth ages 13-17.
  • Wide-Ranging Benefits of Youth Spaces: Youth envisioned a potential city-funded youth center as a place where they could receive academic, mental health, and social support, on top of recreational programming.

Research shows that community-based positive youth development (“PYD”) programs are associated with “reduced poverty in adulthood” and better educational outcomes. Youth centers and programming can also improve health outcomes. According to the CDC, PYD programs can reduce rates of substance use, unintended pregnancies, and STDs among young people.

Santa Ana should follow the example of other Orange County cities.

The City of Anaheim has two youth centers. The Downtown Anaheim Youth Center and West Anaheim Youth Center include a full-sized basketball court, community meeting rooms, dance and fitness rooms, an internet-accessible computer lab, youth activity rooms, and youth programming rooms.

Garden Grove’s Buena Clinton Youth & Family Center provides an after school tutoring program for students in 1st – 6th grades, a summer program for students in Kinder – 6th grade, and a community engagement program for youth ages 13 – 18.

Santa Ana community members who would like to contribute to our project are encouraged to do the following:

  1. Fill out our survey by May 20th for a chance to win 1 of 3 $100 gift cards (if between the ages of 13-20 and a resident of Santa Ana)
  2. Send an email of support for a youth center to their councilmember using our template
  3. Attend our community event on June 6th, 2023 at El Centro Cultural de México (837 N. Ross Street), after which we will go to City Hall to submit public comments in support of a youth center
  4. Submit a public comment electronically during May or June for budget agenda items using our template

The youth of Santa Ana deserve free, safe spaces that affirm their identities and give them the resources they need to live happy and healthy lives. It’s time city council made our youth a budget priority.

Lucía Yletzara González was proudly born and raised in the City of Santa Ana. She is one of the founding members of the Santanero Project, a community-based, youth-led empowerment group. Community members are encouraged to reach out to with any comments or ideas.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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