Santa Rosa's SAY program teaches construction trade to underserved youth

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Students scanned the courtyard of Social Advocates for Youth’s Dream Center, trying to identify the different kinds of work that went into building the housing site for at-risk teens and young adults.

“Think out of the box,” Letitia Hanke urged the students gathered around her last Friday, jotting in their notebooks landscape design, masonry and gutters as examples.

Founder of the Santa Rosa nonprofit Lime Foundation, Hanke partnered with SAY to launch a 10-week vocational program this month to teach primarily homeless and underserved youth about the various building trades. The 13 students who applied will attend class weekly and hear directly from experts in the field.

The program is called NextGen Trades Academy, and focuses on giving youths who can’t or don’t want to attend college a chance to land good-paying jobs, said Hanke, owner of the Santa Rosa-based ARS Roofing, Gutters & Waterproofing. She said schools often don’t talk about construction work as a career path.

Many of those attending the program did not graduate high school or are familiar with one of SAY’s teen-oriented programs such as short-term shelter, food and counseling.

The NextGen Trades Academy program began in March at SAY’s Dream Center in southeast Santa Rosa. Funded through the Lime Foundation, developed to improve the quality of life for veterans, seniors, low-income families and youth, Hanke found contractors willing to pay the wages of the program participants.

Hanke, 41, started working for a roofing company while a music and performing arts student at Sonoma State University more than two decades ago. Beginning as a roofing business receptionist, she ultimately left college to work her way up in the company. In 2004, she launched her own company.

Currently, there’s a lack of young workers coming into the construction industry, Hanke said. That’s what gave her the idea for the program.

“We have this big generation gap,” she said. “We all say the same thing: We can’t find workers.”

Hanke’s foundation started providing similar training to 15 students at Rohnert Park’s Rancho Cotate High School in mid-January. About 15 students are enrolled in the three day-a-week after-school program that’s an introduction to roofing, solar installation, carpentry, plumbing, electrical and other trades.

In June, the contractors teaching in the NextGen Trades Academy will be joined by others in a career fair Hanke is organizing for students from both programs. All the students will receive apprenticeships but must apply for the work.

“These connections are extremely important for our youth who are looking to be hired into career pathways that will lead to living-wage jobs,” said Caitlin Childs, SAY’s communications and marketing manager.

“We often see kids coming to us with little hope of being able to be financially independent and continue living in Sonoma County. For the youth who are ready to take on a training program like this, the opportunity is incredible.”

Eliana Johnson, 24, of Santa Rosa, hopes to work for Hanke in the future. A mother of two who’s currently homeless, she enrolled in the NextGen Trades Academy program with the goal of one day becoming a general contractor.

“The goal is family stability,” Johnson said, noting her children, 5 and 2, don’t live with her. “I’m hoping to have a house and new car, get a tax return and have custody of my kids.”

Interested in gardening, a passion her late grandfather instilled in her, Johnson hopes to land a landscape design job.

The program may help her with that by introducing her to people in the trade.

In addition to exploring different trades, students will earn Green Building and OSHA safety certifications.

“For a contractor like me, that is gold,” Hanke said about the OSHA certification. “We know they have taken the extra time to learn about safety.”

Will Catalano, 19, enrolled in the program in hopes of landing a job. The 2015 graduate of Santa Rosa High School was having a little trouble finding work. Catalano plans to study biology at Santa Rosa Junior College, but also wants to find a job in the solar-panel industry. He hopes the program will help get him there through learning about solar-panel engineering.

“I thought (NextGen Trades Academy) would be good experience,” he said.

Al Ribnick, a licensed general contractor who’s teaching the students from both Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, said the program will help the youth connect with jobs and help them reach their goals.

“There are people who want to give them the opportunity,” he said. “They can begin to realize the things they really want to do in their lives.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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