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Santa Maria designates first Safe Place for endangered children on Central Coast

Posted at 5:28 PM, Jan 02, 2020

The Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center in Santa Maria is a place where many of the city's youngest residents come to exercise or play arcade games but soon, it will also be a place where they can come to seek refuge.

On Thursday, a high-intensity game of air hockey was underway between two boys in the arcade wing of the Center.

When the game was over, the boys packed up to go home. But for some kids in the area, going home may not be an option.

"A kid whose parent may be addicted to drugs and they're not feeling very safe in their home," said Santa Maria Recreation Services Manager Dennis Smitherman.

Stories like this example shared by Smitherman are the reason behind this Center's new distinction as a Safe Place.

"A Safe Place is for those up to 18 years old," Smitherman said. "So if a child is in that crisis situation, they can come get help immediately."

A dedication ceremony is set for Jan. 6, and staff at the Center is now trained in crisis intervention, which includes eight to 12 hours of lessons in comforting a child in need and contacting law enforcement.

The effort is a collaboration between Santa Maria City Recreation and Parks managers and Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley.

The Safe Place program might sound familiar.

That's because a Sacramento woman allegedly abducted by a dangerous man earlier this week was rescued by Safe Place-trained employees at a Flag City McDonald's.

"Our restaurant manager had our employees hold up the drive-thru line so they could stop the car from moving forward," explained Regina Camera, a representative for the Golden State Restaurant Group.

Employees contacted police, who responded immediately.

That immediate emergency response is the purpose of a Safe Place.

"This is going to be the only Safe Place in Central California," Smitherman said.

According to Smitherman, the cost of additional training for Center employees comes from the city's Mayor's Fund.

Santa Maria is joining a network of about 10 Safe Places in California and more than 20,000 nationwide, where crisis is met with comfort and care.

Smitherman said the city already has plans for expanding the program to the Santa Maria YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, public library, fire stations, and even city buses.

"They're going to have a safe place with caring staff who are going to help them," Smitherman said.