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United Way receives major grant for youth programs

Elevate Youth California funding focused on youth substance prevention

Participants in United Way Santa Cruz County’s youth programs work on the Youth Participatory Action Resource Project at UC Santa Cruz. —photo by Dr. Steve McKay/UCSC

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—Two youth programs of United Way of Santa Cruz County (UWSCC) will get a boost of funding in the new year after receiving a grant from Elevate Youth California, a statewide program aiming at addressing substance use disorder.

Youth Action Network (YAN) is a local initiative aimed at providing opportunities for local youth in community-based research, civic engagement, and leadership development. Jóvenes SANOS (JS) focuses on increasing healthy eating and active living—and, recently, the group has been shifting its focus to also address mental health.

The $843,075 grant will allow both programs to continue their work as well as increase resources for themselves and their partner organizations, including Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, Conflict Resolution Center, Living Evolution, and Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos. 

Sarah Emmert, director of community impact at UWSCC, said the goal of the grant is to increase wellbeing in communities–especially those that have been disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs, an effort in the United States starting in the 1970s, which attempted to combat illegal drug use by increasing penalties, enforcement and incarceration.

“We are looking at how to prevent youth from entering the justice system,” Emmert said. “Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve seen across the board the impacts of strained mental health and anxiety. We and our partners have been trying to engage youth and get them out of their shells again, connect them with caring adults who can provide them positive opportunities.”

Emmert said that YAN and JS address substance use prevention in a different way than other organizations. 

“We’re not actually talking directly about substance use with our youth,” she said. “There are so many incredible efforts already looking at substance abuse. Like Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, and the County [of Santa Cruz], who have programs about vaping and addiction. We look at things through a different lens. Of course, if there are youth in our program who are going down that way, we will do those referrals. But we really focus on that civil engagement and leadership.”

A major component of the Elevate grant is promoting system and policy change. YAN and JS partner with UC Santa Cruz on the Youth Participatory Action Resource Project, a project that teaches local youth (primarily from South County) about how to conduct community-led research. They are also working with UWSCC’s Children’s Network on promoting the recently passed Santa Cruz Children’s Bill of Rights.

Emmert said that the new grant will allow UWSCC to keep providing incentives and stipends to youth for their work.

“If we are getting paid for doing this work, and we want these youth to step in and help, we need to honor that,” Emmert said. “We don’t want them to have to choose between these amazing opportunities and having to get another job.”

To learn more about the Elevate Youth California grant, visit elevateyouthca.org.