Serving the future at the Sacramento Youth Center

Daqwan Tremble (left) and Mikale Chavez (center) play pool inside the Sacramento Youth Center. The center also has video games, ping-pong and a lounge area for youth. (Photo by Keyshawn Davis)

By Keyshawn Davis

Raquel Shipp said that throughout the years she has often struggled to find a space for her three young children to play sports or participate in art classes. She found that she had to leave her North Sacramento neighborhood in order to access these kinds of enrichment activities. 

She envisioned a place where multiple activities for youth could be offered. Shipp also knew from her experience working with young refugees that many teenagers share a similar experience of not having enough resources and options available for recreation.

So in 2019, Shipp and her husband, Adam Shipp, found a spacious 15,000-square-foot building on 1901 Del Paso Boulevard and opened the nonprofit Sacramento Youth Center. In February 2023, they purchased the building. 

The SYC has workforce, educational and recreational amenities, including a black box theater, recording studio, a ballroom with a 250-person occupancy, a full-service cafe and a charter school. There’s also a suite with video games, pool tables and a lounge area. The SYC is funded through a network of donors and grant funding, according to Shipp.

“We are creating a community asset that will be dedicated to the youth [ages] 14 to 24 for, hopefully, generations to come,” Shipp said. “I hope that these teenagers will one day be bringing their teenagers here when the time is right.”

The center is a space for youth to get support, build community and discover who they are and what they want to achieve in life, according to Shipp. She added that the youth center seeks to bring opportunities to the boulevard for the youth in North Sacramento and surrounding neighborhoods, while also providing them with support through relationships, collaborations and peer mentorship. 

Programs for youth

From left: Chalys Pennington and Muhammed Allahdin play pool at the Sacramento Youth Center. (Photo by Keyshawn Davis)

The SYC’s flagship program is its peer-mentor training. The training focuses on mental and behavioral health, giving youth the skills to serve themselves and find direction, and help them support their peers through mental and behavioral health experiences. 

Shipp said that the youth center is about to celebrate 400 students who have participated in its peer-mentor training program. They serve groups of 85 to 100 students each semester. 

Shawnay Smith is a peer specialist at the SYC who does case management that focuses on mental and behavioral health support. Smith said touching on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s eight dimensions of wellness and peer-mentoring techniques, the specialists use personal experiences that they went through as a youth to help connect and give younger participants guidance. 

“I’m not here to give you this information because I know more than you or I’m better than you. I might be a couple more steps ahead. But I’m your peer, I’m older, but we’re peers,” Smith said. “When you see [these tools], you can utilize them, you can give them to your peers and then it just keeps going and going.”

Peer specialists act as mentors and build relationships with the youth. Smith said she wants to help youth realize their goals and dreams, and how to achieve them. 

“I’m not a therapist, I’m not a counselor, but I take that time to build the relationship with them and offer resources to them if they need housing, if they need food, clothing,” said Smith, who underwent Medi-Cal Peer Support Specialist Certification through the state of California. “If we don’t offer that here at the youth center, then [we] find another person that we’re in partnership with and refer them out and just be a constant person for them to rely on.”

In addition to the peer-mentorship program, SYC houses one campus of the Community Charter Collaborative School, which is in partnership with Gateway Community Charter. The school provides high school education for students up to 21 years old, as long as the student is continuously enrolled. There are five or six teachers on campus throughout the week, according to Shipp. The school, Shipp said, is a great option for students who are coming out of foster care or transitioning out of homelessness because of its flexibility.

Workforce development

Raquel Shipp in the black box theater at the Sacramento Youth Center. Shipp said they often teach classes in the theater because it feels like taking a college class. (Photo by Keyshawn Davis)

SYC coordinates internships, including for youth who want to explore a field in mental and behavioral health support. They also offer a program for students pursuing degrees such as in psychology, social work and education to work with SYC during the summer as facilitators of the peer-mentor training. Shipp said this summer, interns will train 150 youth to be peer-mentors; this is in a partnership with the Sacramento County Office of Education.

SYC also has a workforce development component through its cafe, Uptown Grounds Coffee and Chai. Students earn pay for working in the cafe. “It feels just like a normal going-to-cafe experience,” Shipp said. “Students can actually take a class and learn about culinary and barista training, and then they can put it to the test.” 

Uptown Grounds Coffee and Chai is open from Tuesday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Shipp said if a student doesn’t have lunch for the day, or if they are unhoused, they will receive a coupon to grab a free lunch.

“We’ve had students who really want to learn. But that’s my goal to always have some sort of paid training, too,” Shipp said. “I’ve been able to secure grants from the City of Sacramento to use paid internships, and they’ll go through a whole training and then they’re actually doing a little bit of work behind the counter, which is building skills.”

Cameron Jackson II, an 18-year-old student who goes to American River College, works at the SYC as an intern and said he likes all the connections he’s made and the people he works with. “If you’re a student who lives in the area, just stop by and say ‘hi,’” he said. 

In addition to fostering connections, Jackson said the SYC has allowed him to try and learn new things. “I didn’t even know how to play ping-pong until I started working here,” Jackson said. “We’re always trying to find new events to do for everybody. Just come and get involved. It’s fun.”

Smith said the youth center is important to her because when she was a youth she did not have a place like this to go. She said what she likes most about her job is spending time and connecting with youth. 

“I feel like I’ve built really great relationships with them,” Smith said. “That’s what I love about [my job]: the connection, the relationships, being able to do what I do. I don’t think I would want to do anything else.”

Shipp said SYC is important to the neighborhood and although there are still many improvements to be made, particularly to the Del Paso Boulevard area, they’re trying to create a space that counters negativity.

“When a youth walks in, it feels like [it’s] a space of rest, it feels like a space that they want to bring their friends,” Shipp said. “It feels like a space where they can actually ask for help, and not be ignored, or be told you’re wrong or be told you’re in trouble now. We want to be a space that can offer help in a very casual, very open and welcoming way.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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