Westside community organizer Heidi Benzonelli was quick to say yes when Child Welfare Services reached out to her last year seeking a warm environment for members of court-separated families to spend quality time with one another.
“I mean it’s really all about feelings and framing,” Benzonelli, president of the nonprofit responsible for maintaining Eureka’s Jefferson Community Center, said. “When they’re coming here, they’re coming to Jefferson. They’re going to play on the playground, they’re going to get some food, they’re going to play in the playroom. They’re going to get to see their parents. … It’s like going to the arcade.”
What was once a defunct elementary school on the corner of Clark and A is now a parkside multi-purpose, community-run campus for childhood and adult education curricula that promote environmental stewardship, financial literacy, paths to citizenship, holistic self-care and pure and simple play.
Since February this “vibrant place where there are already existing programs that provide material support as well as social support to families,” as Child Welfare Services program manager Sheryl Lyons described it, has opened a safe space for children and parents to relax into each other’s company.
These visits are “critical factors” in reuniting families, Lyons said.
The reason a parent is separated from their child is because their home environment is unsafe, Lyons said, or because of neglect. Child Welfare Services will receive a report and once the child is removed from the household and placed into foster care, the parent or parents engage in a process of identifying needs that must be met in order to usher reunification.
“Our primary goal is always to reunify parents and children if safe and possible to do so,” Lyons said in an email to the Times-Standard. “Generally speaking, the court orders a minimum number of hours of visitation when a child is removed and it is up to CWS to make sure this happens. The (multi-family visitation) center is intended in part to provide additional visitation time for families if their social services aide deems it a safe and appropriate environment for the family.”
She said Child Welfare Services chose the Jefferson Community Center as its site for supervised visitations because its mission promotes family time. Families who qualify for the more relaxed environment at the visitation center require less one-on-one case worker supervision, having up to four hours to spend together without strict oversight.
In this way the center offers a “homelike and natural setting,” CWS Director Amanda Winstead said in a news release.
Located at what was formerly Jefferson Elementary School, the solar-powered and American with Disabilities Act-compliant Jefferson Center has multi-purpose classrooms, an industrial kitchen, a 157-person capacity auditorium, a playground and an open field seeded with wildflowers. It also has a 100% sustainable irrigation system for community-maintained vegetable plots as well as a “pollinator garden” to restore bee and butterfly habitat.
Opened in 2012 through local organizing efforts, community engagement and a state grant, the Jefferson Center transformed what was previously a graffiti-infested set of abandoned buildings with broken windows to a colorful and thriving resource for the public — now opening a place for family bonding amid separation.
In 2011, the Westside Community Improvement Association, the nonprofit organization of neighborhood volunteers which made the property into what it is today, was able to purchase it from the city school district for $600,000 with its own money, according to Bill Rodstrom, housing planner for the community center.
Rodstrom was one of the organizers responsible for penning a proposal for Proposition 84 funding from the California Department of Parks and Recreation that he said procured $3.3 million to purchase the abandoned elementary school, and convert it into a community center and a park, and to build the infant-toddler center building that is used by Head Start.
Speaking to the opening of the multi-family visitation center, Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti said she wants to make sure the tribe coordinates with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and Jefferson Center to engage their resources.
“I really do think that it is very state-of-the-art. One of the things families struggle with is how do we heal ourselves and move forward as a family,” Abinanti said. “If you look at the services it provides, it’s filling the gap because pretty much they’re not available or not available on a wide scale and on a consistent basis.”
The center has networked with partnering agencies and individuals to offer rental space for mental health and parenting support groups; classes on attaining citizenship, financial literacy, goal-setting and parenting; financial assistance for former jail inmates; a two-precinct polling place; Latin dance therapy, yoga and queer dojo; after-school and summer programs for kids that include free meals; a free bicycle repair “kitchen” run by volunteers from local bike shops; free lending and youth libraries; and community-sponsored concerts and events.
Benzonelli said because of their success at the center, the state Commission on Recreation and Parks conducted a videography series with police and probation officers to talk about how building parks in urban neighborhoods improves their safety and how connecting residents to neighborhood parks improves health.
“We’re a good influence at this point,” Rodstrom said.
The Times-Standard was unable to establish contact with families under CWS supervision due to confidentiality issues.
“Anecdotally, we’ve heard a lot of feedback from parents who have participated in the multi-family visitation center that it meets their needs,” Lyons said.
By facilitating additional time for family members to connect — giving parents a chance to create ties with other parents and working around parents’ job and students’ school schedules — the visitation center is a boon as far as Benzonelli is concerned.
“It’s something people would normally … think of as being a really scary, negative, sterile thing,” Benzonelli said. “And we turn it into coming to a happy, lively place. Murals are being painted on the walls. The kids get to play. There’s food. They’re smelling food coming down the hall. There’s nothing bad going on here. So I think that it was a perfect match.”
To learn more about the Jefferson Community Center and the programs offered there, go to http://jefferson-project.org/.
Rob Peach can be reached at 707-441-0503.