Merced coalition gathers to push for more youth funding

04/17/2014 8:38 PM

04/17/2014 9:25 PM

The Invest in Our Youth coalition held a news conference Thursday – just in time for this weekend’s Merced City Council’s budget meeting – announcing the newly formed campaign and hinting at some of its plans.

Almost 100 parents, business owners, nonprofit representatives and young people gathered in McNamara Park to hear from the coalition’s organizers.

Invest in Our Youth is made up of Merced-area groups such as Building Healthy Communities, the Merced Organizing Project, Boys and Girls Club of Merced County, Symple Equazion, Faith Love and Hope, California Youth Connection, Communities for a New California and others.

“Positive activities are not just nice to have, they are essential to our community’s development,” said Kelly Turner, president of the group Symple Equazion.

During the news conference, Turner urged anyone within earshot to show up to the city’s budget meetings over the next few months. She asked the council to work closely with the coalition on immediate and long-term goals.

Turner said the full proposal for council is not complete, but advocates plan to have a detailed plan finished in about a week. One example of what the plan will ask for is $180,600 to increase the hours that the McCombs Youth Center is open, which would extend later into weeknights and open the doors on weekends.

The crowd gathered at the park performed call-and-response chants of “Let’s invest in our youth.” Many held handmade signs in English and Spanish that read, “Where is our youth money?” and “Los jovenes son el futuro” (the young children are the future), among other sayings.

Irma Lopez, who was at the conference, said she often wants to get her three children involved in programs but can’t always afford it. She pleaded with city leaders to find money for youth programs. “More recreational and job opportunities will give our children a chance to engage in something positive,” the 48-year-old said in Spanish. “That will allow them to be more motivated to succeed in the future.”

Advocates have been pushing city leaders to find cash that will create more recreation and job-skills programs for young people around Merced. After the housing bubble burst and the recession hit Merced, the city was faced with several years of budget shortfalls. City staff saw layoffs, and services for the Parks and Recreation Department were slashed.

The overall budget for parks and recreation programs this year is about 40 percent of its size in 2005-06, the last year before the recession took hold. Since then the department has a considerably smaller staff payroll and fewer program offerings.

The most recent budget earmarked $700,042, or about 2 percent of the general fund, for parks and recreation programs citywide. A forecast made in January for the coming budget year estimated adding about 5 percent to that earmark, which would make the contribution about $735,000.

Members of the coalition took time in recent months to meet with 123 business owners near downtown. Sixty-nine owners expressed interest in being part of an internship program during the summer, organizers said.

Oscar Torres, co-owner of J&R Tacos, was at the conference. He said an internship program would help his business while giving young people work experience. He said developing the program is important, no matter the price tag. “The cost is not cheap, but the investment is priceless,” he said.

Aaron Jimenez, a 17-year-old junior, said he’s experienced how difficult it can be for young people to find work. The Yosemite High School student said the young need a way to gain experience.

Being able to work, Jimenez said, is about more than just making money. “It provides us a way to be involved in our community,” he said.

None of the members of City Council attended the news conference.

The city plans to hold a goal-setting meeting of the Merced City Council at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The first draft of the 2014-15 budget is expected to be ready in early May. Other budget meetings are planned in May and June.

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