Safe Passage Youth Foundation turns “at risk” to “at promise.”
By Madeline Nathaus
afe Passage Youth Foundation, Thousand Oaks’ 2021 nonprofit of the year, is keeping Ventura County kids out of gangs and turning “at risk youth” to “at promise youth” through the protection of a supportive community.
“Safe Passage is not a program that comes or goes,” said Timothy Hagel, Safe Passage Youth Director. “It’s a way of life that provides a safety net for children from early education into adulthood through security, joy, self-worth and literacy.”
“The first four thousand days of a child’s life matter” is Safe Passage Youth Foundation’s guiding philosophy. That’s why the organization makes it their goal to start working with the community’s youth as early as kindergarten to keep them out of crime by providing resources and an alternative future.
“Our whole function is to remove barriers,” Hagel said. “And to do it in a way that preserves dignity for the families.”
ENDING THE CYCLE THROUGH COMMUNITY SUPPORT
Hagel, who served as the Thousand Oaks Chief of Police from 2014 to 2020 and worked a total of 38 years in law enforcement, recognized how the traditional way of dealing with gangs wasn’t working. He saw how incarcerating gang members without any attention to the reason why youths join gangs only prolonged the problem. When one gang leader was arrested, another rose up from the community and the cycle continued.
He also found that attempting to deter a youth from gang life is nearly ineffective once they’ve reached their teen years and later.
Enter Safe Passage Youth.
“We reach out to kids at a younger age and provide the same things that a gang does — safety, comfort, affirmation, finances and a sense of community,” Hagel said.
The organization started roughly around 2014 as a grassroots movement but quickly gained momentum — and the results have been effective. Safe Passage’s biggest center is currently the Newbury Park location, with two smaller centers in Thousand Oaks that are expected to expand.
HELPING THE WHOLE FAMILY
A weekday for the families in Newbury Park’s program begins with bilingual outreach interventionists greeting 150 to 200 kids before they load onto their school buses. First thing in the morning, the interventionists work individually with each child and family and evaluate on a day-by-day basis what unique needs the foundation can help meet.
“I am committed to this community and I have seen that more benefit has come from more resources shared,” said Dr. Renee McDonough, M.D., lead bilingual outreach interventionist.
These interventionists, along with specially trained Spanish-speaking mothers from the neighborhood known as promotoras workers, help distribute immunizations and other medical requirements these families may have and check in on their general wellness. These people help more than just the kids: Their medical outreach extends to all 3,000 people living in these micro-communities.
After morning check ins, one of these interventionists then follows the largest set of children to school and operates as the yard duty throughout the day, tracking how they’re doing. Once the school day is done, the children are bussed back and meet once again with interventionists as well as Conejo Recreation and Park District staff at the Safe Passage center. The kids are provided with nutritious afterschool snacks, Internet access, crafts, outdoor activities and a homework club.
The local partners that help fund and support the foundation are numerous. The foundation works with Kiwanis, Art Trek, the school district, Adelante, Feeding America, Los Robles Hospital, local colleges and restaurants, the police department and the Oaks Mall, just to name a few.
“We have so many partners,” Hagel said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
“My hope for Safe Passage Youth is that the organization continues to have the generous support of many other groups and individuals so that we may continue this work,” said McDonough. “Together we can keep helping families access the many resources in this community that allow them to thrive and ultimately contribute more themselves.”
In addition, Safe Passage has an average of 45 to 70 workers and interns who participate on a completely volunteer basis, including Hagel. Only one interventionist is paid and just 7% of overhead goes to insurance. Aside from this, all money goes back to the community. Grants and fundraising account for 98% of these funds.
With this aid, the foundation prides itself on its ability to offer resources that are completely free to the people they are serving. No application process is necessary, families seeking aid need only to reach out and Safe Passage will be there.
LIFELINE DURING COVID
Even when COVID struck, Safe Passage became a full-blown emergency services organization. When schools shut down, it expanded its outreach from 127 kids to nearly 600 kids almost overnight. It offered schooling, testing, immunization clinics and food to those most affected. The organization also covered funeral costs of loved ones that passed.
“The most important impact I’ve seen is that families feel safer in the community, not fearing the outside,” said Wilbert Ac, Safe Passage youth counselor and Hagel’s right-hand man. “They feel like they have people always around them and looking out for them no matter what happens.”
Ac has himself been supported by the foundation in hard times of his life through receiving school supplies, emotional support and even a car. Ac said he attributes his work with Safe Passage for making him the person he is today.
He also received the first-ever Thousand Oaks Community Commitment Award from former Thousand Oaks Mayor Claudia Bill-de la Peña for his relentless work on the front lines during the strictest of COVID’s lockdowns.
“Peña was amazed by my work ethic and everything else that I was able to do at a young age,” Ac said. “Once I started working with Safe Passage, it helped me do everything I could to help people and become a hero in the community.”
PUTTING THE FUN IN FUNDAMENTALS
The foundation’s youth are also taken on five to six field trips a year to locations like the Bank of America Performing Arts Center, zoos and farms. Beyond this, they have the option to participate in summer camp, swim lessons, medical classes and much more.
This community engagement discourages gang violence against one another and encourages peaceful reactions with their neighbors throughout their lives.
As Hagel explained, “These kids all know it’s pretty hard to go do violence against someone you took swim lessons or a field trip with.”
While the bulk of the foundation’s focus is on elementary schoolers, they also provide a teen club on Tuesday nights. And once kids reach the age of 15, they are welcome to start gaining job experience, and get paid while doing so, by joining the Conejo Youth Conservation Corps.
Families are further provided for as well. On Fridays, women can receive feminine products and diapers. On the second Saturday of every month, a farmers’ market is held in the Newbury Park location’s micro-community with food completely free for the families.
PROTECT AND SERVE
According to Hagel, thanks to Safe Passage and its outreach, the crime rate has dropped over 40 percent. And they’ve achieved this by creating a healthier relationship with the local police force, too.
“Tim understood that many underserved communities around the nation had a difficult, and at times tumultuous relationship with their police agencies,” said Damian Alvarez, Ventura County Sheriff and Safe Passage board member. “It’s important that these traditionally underserved communities not view the police as an occupying force in their neighborhoods, but moreover as true public servants.”
Alvarez said the police presence with Safe Passage is mostly non-law enforcement engagement with the youths. A deputy sheriff or representative of the Ventura County police are present at nearly every Safe Passage event to spread open communication and safety.
“Our goal is to show these communities that the police are not only there to ensure their safety, but to show our support and build bridges to encompass and accept all cultures,” Alvarez said.
The Safe Passage Foundation is always open to accepting new volunteers and donations. Currently, they are looking for clothing donations for clothing exchanges held during the monthly farmers’ market.
“This is a blueprint, it can work in any neighborhood,” Hagel said. “It takes a partnership between the police department, the school district, the park district and an organization such as Safe Passage to bring all those services together. We can get things done.”
For more information on how to aid Safe Passage Youth or for help seeking support visit safepassageyouth.org.