SAY Dream Center finds kindness literally coming out of the closet.

The new residents settling into their rooms at Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) Dream Center this year won’t be storing their belongings on cheap, mass-­produced shelves manufactured overseas. Instead, these young adults—former foster kids between the ages of 18 and 24—will each have an elegant, solid, wood armoire to use, handcrafted for them by woodshop students at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park. Each armoire comes with a dedication plaque bearing a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

“To have something that was caringly made by a peer, not just given to them by adults, is a powerful foundation for a young person to stand on,” says Katrina Thurman, SAY’s Chief Operating Officer. In Sonoma County, 65 percent of youth who have aged out of the foster system become homeless each year, which is why the Dream Center is so important.

After traveling a long and controversial road that included raising $9.8 million in funding and enacting extensive renovations, the Dream Center opened its doors in late December 2015. The 40,000 square-­foot facility, on the site of the former Warrack Hospital, houses the SAY administrative offices, along with counseling, life and career readiness programs, and a housing initiative that will provide shelter for 40 young adults by the end of this year with 63 total people ensconced in their own rooms in the future. For young people used to ping-
ponging around from home to shelter, having a place of one’s own is not taken lightly.

The seed for the armoire project came about last year when Rancho Cotate High School woodshop teacher Bill Hartman asked his students how he could improve their classroom experience. Overwhelmingly, the teens wanted to build something for the community. Perhaps furniture for a nonprofit?

“I thought about it all summer,” Hartman says. “What can we build that would make a difference?”

When Leti Wallace, SAY’s Work-­Based Learning coordinator and a regular presence on the Rancho Cotate campus, asked Hartman about upcoming class projects, he mentioned the furniture donation idea—and how he was looking for a nonprofit with which to work.

“I know just the nonprofit for you,” Wallace told him with a smile.

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

From there, it was easy to figure out exactly what the woodshop students could build for the Dream Center. Due to its previous iteration as a hospital, the residential rooms didn’t have closets. They needed armoires. Sixty of them. Hartman took the idea back to his students and they loved it. They got to work designing prototypes, called around to get material costs, and did the math on the whole production. It would cost about $6,000 to build the armoires. Not wanting SAY to pay a dime, Hartman and his students launched a fundraising campaign to raise money for the materials, achieving over 60 percent of their goal.

According to Hartman, the armoire project is an example of a concept he calls “community manufacturing.” It’s something he’s given a lot of thought to and would like to see it happen more often in high schools.

“I’ve always wanted to expose my students to the fact that they have a lot of intelligence, power, and skills,” says Hartman. “They can help community and families now. You don’t have to wait until you are a high school or college graduate to make a difference.”

Aesthetically, the armoires are beautiful, yet durable, specimens. The plywood, a prefinished maple from Mount Storm Forest Products in Windsor, sold to the class at a discount, is polished to a sheen. The left side can hold a small wardrobe, while the right side holds shelves for storage. As a clever touch, the teen makers added a crucial design element: A sturdy hook to hold a skateboard or a guitar.

Ten armoires have been delivered so far. Hartman says they’ll build as many armoires as they can with the funds raised. Hopefully, that’ll add up to 60 by year’s end.

According to Katrina Thurman, kids on both sides of the equation benefit from a project like this. The Rancho Cotate woodshop students get the satisfaction that comes of producing something useful for their community, and the youth living at the Dream Center realize that they are worthy of a beautiful, quality piece of woodcraft.

“It’s one of the coolest win­-win projects that I’ve participated in,” Thurman says. “This is such a perfect partnership. Caringly made products, by kids, for kids.”

Article resources:

Bill Hartman’s IndieGoGo campaign has lapsed, but you can still contact him to donate through that page:­-building­-for­-teens

To contact the center directly:


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