Sayonara Youth Center is Thriving

Citrus Heights, CA  |  By Elise Spleiss
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Transformations Continue and Lives Are Changed on Sayonara Drive. Photo courtesy City of Citrus Heights

CITRUS HEIGHTS, CA (MPG) - If there is a residential street or neighborhood that can be showcased as a template for totally revitalizing itself, it is Sayonara Drive in the city of Citrus Heights.

For the first ten years of cityhood, Citrus Heights endured the stigma of the crime and blight on Sayonara Drive. This three-block swath of land was known for gangs, drugs, shootings, assaults, and a myriad of other calls to 911.  Located off Sunrise Boulevard, between Greenback Lane and Auburn Road, Sayonara was the street to avoid. Calls to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department were, on average 32% higher than anywhere else in the city.

That was then. Now, almost 13 years since the Citrus Heights Police Department (CHPD) was formed in 2006 and began a methodical transformation of the street, crime is down more than 70%, 15 offending apartment building were demolished and a long, ongoing collaboration was created and is continuing to this day to keep Sayonara Drive safe for its families and the surrounding communities.

This collaboration is between Campus Life Connection, which oversees the work of the Sayonara Children and Youth Center, CHPD, local churches and other service organizations, and members of the community at large. All continue to work alongside the families of Sayonara Drive.

The mission of the Center according to the Campus Life Connection / City Life website is to “develop character, confidence, responsibility and faith in the lives of young people and their families through educational, social, physical and spiritual programs.”

Integral to the project’s success was the work of a new Problem Oriented Policing (POP) Unit created by then Police Chief Christopher Boyd to address the problems on Sayonara. Officers formed relationships with students at the first Sayonara Children and Youth Center housed in two small apartment units.  

Eventually, as trust grew between police and residents, these officers, working with the City, volunteers from the community and local churches, along with the students and their parents became a successful team, eventually taking back their street.

In 2012 a new 2,700 square foot Children and Youth Center and a new park and playground was built for the residents of Sayonara Drive with a federal grant.

Julie Habeeb has been site director since 2015 when Gladys Standard, the first site director retired. Habeeb, 28, works with over 100 students from elementary through high school who call this building and playground their home away from home.

Habeeb volunteered at the “old” center in 2008 while in high school. She kept in touch with the Center and some of the students during her three years in Los Angeles working for a non-profit. Upon her return in July of 2012 she was hired on staff with Campus Life Connection to be the Program Assistant at the Sayonara Center. In 2015 she was hired as site director at Sayonara.

At risk children and teens work and play hard and thrive at the Center. There is never a dull moment when students begin to arrive for the after-school program. Tutors and other volunteers help with homework, make healthy snacks, help on the computer or baking or artwork. When homework is completed many students and volunteers head next door to play on the half-sized basketball court.

Students are constantly learning during their time at the Center. One of the goals of the City Life program is “to raise leaders in their communities who will affect long term change.” Not only do they learn at the Center but working with Sunrise Park and Recreation, playing football, basketball, martial arts, and attending CHPD  Police Activities League (PAL) events.     

During the summer there are middle and high school trips day camps and trips including Break Away at Bayside, swim lessons and Extreme Camp with the CHPD.

 Two students tell why they like going to their after-school program and other outing. Sergio, 12 says, "The reason I attend the Center is because it’s a fun place to be at and it's also a cool hang out spot. I look forward to fieldtrips with the Center. My favorites so far have been going to Santa Cruz and to Mojo Dojo."

Richard, 15 says, "If it wasn't for the Center I am sure I would have dropped out of school already."

If you would like to be a volunteer at the Center call 916- 390-1117.


Sources: Campus Life Connection

California Police Chiefs Association