Poor Sali­nas Val­ley town doesn’t scrimp on its kids

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - CALIFORNIA -

If Cal­i­for­nia were to put the needs of its poor kids first, what would that look like?

A lot like Gon­za­les, a city of 9,000 — many of them farm­work­ers — in the Sali­nas Val­ley.

The peo­ple of Gon­za­les lack ed­u­ca­tional cre­den­tials (less than 10 per­cent of adults older than 25 have a col­lege de­gree) and wealth (the me­dian in­come is less than $17,000 an­nu­ally). But they have an abun­dance of youth: 36 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is younger than 18.

Against the odds, Gon­za­les has as­sem­bled such a rich suite of ser­vices for chil­dren — 27 pro­grams — that it spends more on youth than on its Fire Depart­ment. Gon­za­les res­i­dents are poor, but they still voted for a half-cent sales tax that helps fund youth ser­vices. And while lead­ers in this Mon­terey County town don’t have much power, that didn’t stop them from shar­ing power with their own chil­dren, who help make de­ci­sions on spend­ing and pol­icy.

Gon­za­les, for all its chal­lenges, has real strengths. It has de­vel­oped an in­dus­trial park and agri­cul­ture-re­lated busi­nesses that pro­duce steady tax rev­enue. And it has sta­ble and thought­ful lo­cal lead­er­ship.

Early in his 16-year-long ten­ure, City Man­ager René Men­dez asked the City Coun­cil mem­bers to make draw­ings of what was most im­por­tant to them in Gon­za­les. They all drew pic­tures of parks, play­grounds and other places for kids. That ex­er­cise, in com­bi­na­tion with rec­om­men­da­tions from a panel of young peo­ple put to­gether by the city, trig­gered a shift in the coun­cil’s fo­cus to kids.

The city started by ramp­ing up year­round sports pro­grams, and then added full-day, five-day-a-week sum­mer camps that work­ing par­ents can af­ford ($50 a week). The city now pro­vides this same full-day cov­er­age dur­ing spring break, win­ter break, and any other week­day when schools are closed. In 2016, the city joined with the school district to start a ro­bust af­ter­school

Cindy Aguilar, youth com­mis­sioner

pro­gram, with a fo­cus on home­work as­sis­tance.

Be­cause most child care in Gon­za­les is per­formed by grand­moth­ers and fam­ily friends, the city used a United Way grant to start the Friends, Fam­i­lies & Neigh­bors Play­group, which of­fers train­ing to un­li­censed care­givers. The city is also work­ing on ini­tia­tives that would cre­ate a city preschool pro­gram that could also help the city’s in­for­mal care­givers be­come li­censed.

As much as pos­si­ble, Gon­za­les em­ploys the city’s own chil­dren as part­time work­ers or in­terns in its pro­grams. Stu­dents as young as ninth­graders are asked to in­ter­view and fill out ap­pli­ca­tions — giv­ing them ex­pe­ri­ence. The city also gives part-time work to col­lege stu­dents from Gon­za­les to keep them con­nected to the town.

Men­dez, who dou­bles as high school ten­nis coach, says Gon­za­les has more money for kids be­cause it lim­its spend­ing on other things. The city doesn’t of­fer re­tiree health ben­e­fits and keeps its po­lice force small. Gon­za­les can do this be­cause crime is well be­low state av­er­ages.

One rea­son Gon­za­les youth pro­grams suc­ceed is that the kids help gov­ern them.

When the city needed a new play­ground struc­ture at its tot lot, staffers were re­quired to give a pre­sen­ta­tion on op­tions to kinder­garten and tran­si­tional kinder­garten stu­dents. The kids then had a bind­ing vote to de­ter­mine the struc­ture. “No one over the age of 5 got to vote on that,” says Sara Pap­ineauBrandt, the city’s parks and recre­ation chief.

I got a taste of youth democ­racy re­cently in the City Coun­cil cham­bers, where the Gon­za­les Youth Coun­cil meets two Wed­nes­days a month. In 2014, the city and school district jointly ap­pointed two youth com­mis­sion­ers, who are 18 or younger and at­tend City Coun­cil and school board meet­ings; those com­mis­sion­ers lob­bied to cre­ate the Youth Coun­cil, which con­sists of mid­dle and high school stu­dents.

Youth Coun­cil mem­bers set their own agenda and take on var­i­ous tasks, from re­search­ing lo­cal cannabis reg­u­la­tions to sur­vey­ing the com­mu­nity about Po­lice Depart­ment con­duct. In 2017, the Youth Coun­cil drafted an or­di­nance on un­der­age drink­ing that was unan­i­mously adopted by the City Coun­cil.

At the re­cent meet­ing, youth com­mis­sioner Cindy Aguilar, 18, dis­cussed plans for a Youth In­no­va­tion Cen­ter, with com­puter labs and a mu­sic stu­dio. Sales-tax dollars are help­ing the project, but the coun­cil will need to raise money as well.

“We got to meet again with the ar­chi­tect,” Aguilar said. “We said we wanted it to smell like choco­late chip cook­ies.”

They may get their wish. With rep­re­sen­ta­tion comes power. Per­haps the state should form its own youth leg­is­la­ture.

“We got to meet again with the ar­chi­tect. We said we wanted it to smell like choco­late chip cook­ies.”

Joe Math­ews writes the Con­nect­ing Cal­i­for­nia col­umn for Zócalo Pub­lic Square. To com­ment, sub­mit your let­ter to the ed­i­tor at SFChron­i­cle.com/let­ters.

Larry Crowe / As­so­ci­ated Press 2007

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