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Sayonara Center adapts to help youth, families during pandemic

Students can be seen using laptops outside the Sayonara Center in Citrus Heights, as COVID-19 prompts activities to shift outdoors. // M. Hazlip

By Mike Hazlip–
The Sayonara Center in Citrus Heights has been serving students after school for years, but that has changed with the COVID shutdown.

The indoor spaces usually reserved for students to work on homework are largely empty, and stacks of water cases and other supplies now sit where tables and chairs once were. Students now sit at folding tables outside under pop-up canopies.

The center now serves entire families, according to Julie Habeeb, the center’s director. Habeeb said she has seen a significant change since March, as the coronavirus spread.

“When everything shut down, we just decided to stick to what we were doing Monday through Friday, which was preparing an early dinner for our students,” Habeeb said. “But now we’re able to provide it to the entire family.”

A recent food drive was organized to help with the increased demand. Organizers say the center also needs kitchen supplies to provide well balanced meals for the community. They serve an average of 70 people each day at the center, according to Habeeb.

Not all of the cooking is done by hand however. Habeeb said the Citrus Heights Texas Roadhouse provides a meal each month, and McDonalds steps in to provide food twice a month. The center has a food budget, and Habeeb said she would welcome any other restaurants willing to work within their budget to provide for the community.

Julie Habeeb, director of the Sayonara Center, has been helping serve meals to students and families during the coronavirus pandemic. // M. Hazlip

In addition to the changes in meal preparation, Habeeb has started an after school computer lab to help students with distance learning. In a May 9 report at the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, the New York Times found students from lower income families faced greater challenges accessing remote learning.

Among several reasons for the disparity, the Times found that “private school students are more likely to live in homes with good internet access, computers and physical space for children to focus on academics.”

Habeeb said students are able to access Sayonara Center’s wireless internet from the parking lot using laptop computers. Although only two students were taking advantage of the computer lab when The Sentinel was at the location, Habeeb said she typically sees between five and 11 students.

Before the shutdown, 20 volunteers would typically help 50 students in the after school hours each day. Habeeb said some students have told her they have completed their homework at home during regular school hours.

Most of the students Habeeb sees are from families with both parents working full time. Without the center, these children would be home alone caring for siblings.

The Sayonara Center opened its doors in 2006, and Habeeb says the street, with its reputation for criminal activity, has improved through the cooperation of police and city officials.

“I’m extremely grateful for the City of Citrus Heights and all the partnerships that we do have,” Habeeb said. “There’s just so much support in the community. How the Chamber and Rotary and the Police Department, everyone always comes together.”

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