We are the City Spotlight on Sunset Youth Services
By Mary Loebig Giles, Sunset Youth Services’ Associate Director of Development & Communications
From DCYF: Throughout this Spotlight we included videos from UpStar Records, Sunset Youth Services’ youth-run record label. This innovative workforce development program provides young people with hands-on experience recording, mixing, mastering, releasing, distributing, and promoting their own music and videos.
Founded as a safe haven for young people from all over the city, Sunset Youth Services (SYS) has become a place of restoration and healing, where youth can access the resources they need under one roof to realize their full potential. Our location offers a safe neutral space and attracts young people from neighborhoods that include: Bayview, OMI/Excelsior, Mission, Tenderloin, Sunnydale, Potrero, Fillmore, Sunset, and Parkside, among many others. We offer healing-centered youth development strategies, family empowerment, and advocacy to empower young people to envision a better life, finish school, obtain employment and find their place in the world.
SYS has been providing effective healing-centered, relationship-based services throughout its 30-year history — a cornerstone to all its work with young people. These healing pathways to relationship include Justice Services, Digital Arts and Technology, Workforce Development, Family Support Services, and Healing Arts.
Our challenges during the pandemic were many and included the closure of our youth center, lack of computers and good wifi among youth (impacting their relationships and school engagement), job losses and amplified food insecurity among families, and increased mental health issues among youth — including loneliness and anxiety. In addition, stressed out families often had to juggle work and provide their own childcare while managing family health concerns, helping their kids with tech issues and schooling. Over this time period, 7 young people in our community died from a mix of drug overdoses, street violence, and tragic accidents — ripple effects and trauma that profoundly impacted staff and youth.
Within a few short weeks of the shelter in place order, we creatively pivoted to virtual programming, phone calls, video chats, and outdoor meetups during the lockdown — prioritizing relationships and crisis response.
Our Healing Arts program held “Shelter in the Storm” online support groups twice per week, with one of our youth and a yoga teacher co-hosting to offer body-based mindfulness practices for kids and staff. We also offered an essential support group for frontline workers. In November our licensed therapist also co-hosted a Walking Histories Summer Cohort on “Truth Telling: Honoring Ohlone History” with two youth leaders — featuring special guest and Suquamish Nation leader Calina Lawrence. One youth with a long-standing mental health diagnosis (who has been on and off medications) found creativity in our community to be one of his best coping tools. He told us, “Art is my medication,” and participated in Zoom sessions where he created and connected with other youth, learning along the way to better manage and cope with life stressors.
Simultaneously, we worked with Dine11 and World Central Kitchen to deliver 2,200 meals and 80 food boxes across the city each week to feed hungry youth and families during the pandemic. Although we’re serving fewer meals now, we continue to hear about how appreciated meals and groceries are. One family recently told us that Dad works mornings and mom works night shifts. Seven people live in their home: the parents, in-laws, and three little children. Between picking up three children with different schedules (and at different schools) and taking care of the in-laws, it’s hard for the parents to find time to prepare meals for the family. Donated meals have saved time, energy and money and are being shared with disabled and extended family members as well.
Our Family Support Services were also of vital importance during this time. With family stress at an all-time high, more parents than ever attended our Triple P Positive parenting classes, meeting over Zoom to build community, learn and practice stress management skills, and figure out how to build healthy relationships with their kids. It was exactly what parents told us they needed, and we’re so thankful we were able to pivot our programming online to accommodate families who were stuck at home. Since 2011 nearly 250 unduplicated parents have taken the course. One mother shared, “Your Triple P class was thoughtful, educational, eye opening and nurturing, just like the parents we hope to become one day. My kids are still talking about parenting class and how much THEY enjoyed it. The teen panel was a great idea as well, so informative and realistic. Hoping I can implement all that I’ve learned.”
Inspired by the youth and families who were struggling with intense isolation and anxiety, we took our love and support to the streets. Imagine getting an early morning text saying, “Hey, the Love Parade is coming to visit. Will you be around in a half hour?” and then looking out your window to see a convoy of 11 cars led by our new mobile recording studio sprinter van. Now picture lots of hand-colored posters taped on the cars and bobbing in the windows as staff, staff children, and pets drive by. Throw in some honking, waving, kiss-throwing, and shout outs — “We love you! You are not alone! We’re in this together!” — and you’ve been visited by the LOVE Parade. When pandemic strikes, we bring relationships on the road — because love matters.
After nearly 15 months of pandemic, we re-opened our Youth Center after adding plexiglass dividers, HEPA air filters, and a new volunteer-constructed parklet. We’ve spent the last year reconnecting with young people and gradually returning to in-person programming. This summer we launched our 10-week Summer Cohorts. Twenty-five young people, ages 14–22, explored their interests and deepened skills in: Cooking, Film & Theater, Fashion & Entrepreneurship, Upstar TV and Digital Media Creation, and Mental Health & Creative Writing. Most individual cohort group activities took place in our new wellness hub with access to quiet spaces and new equipment, including a heat press, screen printing press, and embroidery machine. Simultaneously, we’ve continued to host our studio center drop-in recording sessions for local musicians and rising artists.
Reflecting on the summer cohort experience in view of the changing nature of the pandemic, Director of Digital Arts, Joel Tarman, said, “Kids are trying to figure out how to be normal when things aren’t normal. So we’re constantly trying to figure out how to engage them where they’re at. Post-pandemic there’s so much re-building. We’re helping them rebuild trust, reconnect, and be in community.”
We’ve had to learn how to shift and adapt to virtual programming on the fly, create and manage safe digital environments, and reconfigure youth employment — all while maintaining quality services in the context of numerous and frustrating limitations. Our staff rallied and acquired new skills, funders generously gave and reduced reporting requirements, our families flexed their digital muscles, youth worked from home, and we shifted programs to meet the most urgent mental health and physical needs of those we served. Many of the changes we’ve made are here to stay, having given us access to a wider array of tools to stay connected.
San Francisco is a world-class city with so much beauty and heart. It’s known for its landmarks, parks, vibrant food scene, the arts, diverse cultural corridors, and so much more. It’s also a city of steep inequities and lots of precious people who want to build families here but can’t afford to stay. Affordable housing is at the top of the list of things needed by families to thrive in the city: both the families we serve and the staff who serve them! While the City works to make more affordable housing available, we’ll continue to show up for these resilient young people and their families — with healing-centered programs and services as pathways to healthy relationships!