$1.8 million federal grant boosts Santa Rosa pairs youth program

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Several years ago, already well into their 80s, Alfred and Dorothy Golden of Santa Rosa took on a problem that some of the nation's finest minds have yet to solve.

"We set out to figure out how we, as elderly, retired people, could use the knowledge and techniques developed over our 65 years of marriage to solve the problems faced by parents and grandparents all over the country — how to feel safe, sending their kids to public school," said Alfred Golden, now 90.

"How can we contribute to addressing the problems of youth today? School is supposed to be a place to learn and have fun," he said, but for too many, "it has turned into a place of dread."

The couple came up with a plan to engage a number of Santa Rosa-area agencies in a cooperative effort, using existing school facilities during off-hours, at low or no cost, to provide children with a place to go for constructive activities.

Called Safe Havens for Youth Coalition, the model project recently garnered a $1.8 million U.S. Department of Education grant. And that's only the beginning, according to the articulate and energetic couple, who hope their efforts will be duplicated across the state and nation.

The idea for Safe Havens for Youth came from Dorothy, who for many years wrote a nationally syndicated consumer-advocate column.

When she and her husband, now active members of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, relocated here in 1994 following the Northridge earthquake, they began to notice that even though their new upscale community had spent billions of dollars on wonderful school facilities, these mostly shut down after 3 p.m., weekends and all summer long, leaving many kids with nothing to do and no place to go.

Dorothy found it appalling that with "all the money spent on those [school] buildings, they should be used only a third of the time."

The resulting program provides afternoon, weekend and summer activities on school grounds, with tutors, mentors and sports coaches — mostly volunteers with professional aspirations.

Among its most promising feature is a gun-swap program, Alfred said. Working with local law enforcement, and in cooperation with a computer recycling firm, Safe Havens for Youth has arranged for kids, parents and others to trade firearms for working computers.

And in a related project, they've established Youth Employment Centers, where kids can come after school, apply for jobs and train on computers.

They will also be provided with tools, said Alfred, "so they can refurbish computers on their own, and have one at home so they can teach their parents computer skills, too."

"Especially in single-parent households," he said, "the kids don't have the contact with adults they might need. The tutors and mentors are there to show that adults are not enemies, but people capable of helping the young person achieve their goals."

"We have brought together 50-some community elements to turn idle classrooms into multicultural learning places," he said.

Much of this was accomplished with the help of fellow members of Beth Ami's senior's group, the Friendship Circle.

"Those people really did a job for us," said Alfred. "They had to go out and sell the schools on the idea of participating. They spoke to principals and counselors in the schools where they live and where their children or grandchildren attend."

The Goldens have a long history of activism, with an impressive list of accomplishments to their credit. Alfred attributes much of that to creativity — something he fostered in his own character, and which he believes comes almost entirely from his Jewish upbringing.

Raised in an Orthodox home in Pittsburgh, Pa., Alfred is the son of a Russian immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island as a preteen. Benjamin Golden discovered that the place was virtually crawling with "Goldens," but that most of them were Irish. In order to identify himself as a Jew, he added a "berg" to his name. The "berg" was later "legally amputated in court," said Alfred, at the insistence of an aunt who felt it might attract unnecessary anti-Semitic fallout.

A psychologist, criminologist and University of Pittsburgh instructor, Alfred created the Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance company. He has also penned several Broadway plays.

Dorothy was raised by a "fanatically Orthodox mother," she said, who severely restricted her friendships and her movements.

By "a stroke of luck," she happened upon a settlement house donated to her Pittsburgh neighborhood by a Jewish man. She began going there after school, with kids of all persuasions. It changed her life significantly.

Said Alfred, "Jews have had to be creative to survive over the centuries, and despite their travails, have succeeded every place they went, becoming advisers to kings and well-known leaders all over the world. And they did it by being creative and by having a real desire to share with others.

"I have found that Jews who follow enough of the religion to grasp its major objectives of conduct and the basic ideas of Torah, can readily contribute to their community's growth and welfare."

This is precisely what the Goldens have in mind with Safe Havens for Youth, which now operates in three Sonoma County elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. The Goldens have applied for additional grants to expand services into the surrounding rural areas.

As word of the project has spread, the Goldens have fielded inquiries from religious leaders, politicians and others throughout the country — among them Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has since instituted similar programs in 500 Chicago-area schools.

Dorothy was recently honored at the ribbon-cutting for the start of the program at the second participating Santa Rosa middle school.

"We expect that publicity and community support will act as an invitation to the rest of the country," said Alfred. "We get letters and calls from the White House, from members of Congress, and enough other feedback that we know we're on the right track."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.