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Cristin Felso, Sonoma’s teen advocate, heads to Washington state

The indomitable Cristin Felso is leaving us. For those who know her and, for those who may not have had the pleasure of making her acquaintance, Felso, 47, is the powerhouse behind what is today known as Teen Services Sonoma (TSS).

The decision to leave Sonoma was a difficult one for Felso but life in a new town beckons. Along with her husband, Paul, Felso will make the move to Friday Harbor in Washington state’s San Juan Islands to be close to family and grandchildren.

Starting in 1999 as a volunteer with the El Nido Teen Center, Felso spent the next six-and-a-half years supporting the Valley’s teens and building the center from a small drop-in spot to what it is today. This includes The Lovin’ Oven, Operation Bicycle, the Cowboy Cab fundraiser and much more.

The Early Years

At its inception, El Nido operated out of run-down building on Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs - almost literally ON Highway 12, so close to the road was the actual edifice. Just barely older than a teenager herself, Felso cultivated an almost instant rapport with the kids. It seems she had a gift for generating trust and respect while holding everyone to high expectations.

Digging in, she developed programs, nurtured teens, and built their confidence. The teens responded.

“With funding from the county, I was able to start a couple of prevention programs: one for drug and alcohol use and another to combat HIV infection and teen pregnancy,” said Felso. “We had a great Girls’ Group that would meet on Monday nights. Once in a while we’d have an overnight at the center and we’d laugh because the floor would vibrate from the trucks driving by on the highway. We had fun.”

Fun. That’s what Felso aimed for. Luckily, it’s also what she was good at. Having cut her teeth at Operation Youth and the No Name Café on the campus of Sonoma Valley High School, Felso was well versed in what clicks with teens.

During her tenure with Operation Youth and working with a local artist, Felso built a flourishing art community called the No Name Art Society. Gathering after school on Wednesdays, the group of 30 or so young artists produced original works of art in a safe, inclusive environment fostered by Felso.

“The No Name Café was really a vibrant community,” said Felso, who ran the center for six-and-a-half years. “During rainy weather, we were the only place with indoor seating and we’d often have 200 students who came through on a regular basis. It was a really great, open community where anyone could feel they belonged.”

In the intervening years, El Nido morphed into the Valley of the Moon Teen Center with the construction and opening of a beautiful new building in 2008. But the changes weren’t over yet.

In 2010, Operation Youth merged with Valley of the Moon Teen Center and became Teen Services Sonoma. After more than a few growing pains, which included the merger, staff transitions and a near economic collapse, Felso took over as executive director in 2011. According to Doug Hanford and Judy Scotchmoor, co-presidents of the board of directors, the organization has gained clarity of mission and the respect of the Sonoma community under Felso’s leadership.

Next Level

Shortly after Felso took over, TSS was awarded the Impact 100 grant and embarked on its ambitious Ready to Work program. With Felso at the helm, the program has flourished with 300 teens taking part last year alone. Combining volunteer job coaches and local businesses looking to hire teens, the program is a training ground for success.

“The coaches work with the teens on the basics – things like being punctual, how to work through a schedule conflict, etc. They also work on putting together a resume, interview skills, confidence building, and financial literacy,” said Felso.

Once the teens are ready, they are paired with local businesses with an open position and a willingness to hire a teenager. “A few of our best teen employers are the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, Sweet Scoops, Wells Fargo, a local tree trimmer and a dry wall company. It really runs the gamut,” said Felso adding that TSS is always looking for additional teen-friendly businesses.

In addition to the Ready to Work program, TSS also includes the microbusinesses the Lovin’ Oven, Operation Bicycle (moving soon to the new Vailetti Plaza) and of course, the No Name Cafe. No longer micro, these businesses account for 30 percent of the center’s revenue and each employs 35-40 teens each year.

Next Steps

“Moving away from Sonoma, where I’ve lived since 1981, and leaving Teen Services, has been one of the most difficult decisions of my life. Sonoma is one of those truly special places where you look around and think, ‘I can’t believe I get to live here!’,” said Felso. “I also treasure Teen Services and it’s one-of-a-kind programs that positively impact so many young lives. I will miss both, terribly.

“I will also miss the many special people I have come to know growing up here and through my work with TSS including our generous donor community; the dedicated Board of Directors; talented volunteers; and incredible staff. I feel really blessed to have had been a part of it all.”

Rightfully devastated when Felso announced her resignation, the center and board responded in grand fashion, planning a stellar send off to wish her well in her next endeavor. Felso and her husband were to be feted in style at Sonoma Raceway on Monday night, with many of the people she’s touched in attendance.

One young TSS participant who couldn’t attend the party sent her goodbyes to Felso in an email.

“I was informed that your departure date is sooner than expected. A month ago it seemed so far away, but now it is merely days… I cannot thank you enough for all the support you have given me. I would not have been able to travel so far with my dreams if it weren’t for your help. My family and I are truly grateful for opening up doors to a successful future. You have always been an inspiration and a wonderful role model to me. It is sad to see you leave, but excited at the same time for what your fresh start has to offer. We wish you the best of luck and you will be missed by many.”

A perfect testament to the outstanding work Felso has done over the years.

For information on the filling Felso’s considerable shoes, go to TeenServicesSonoma.org.

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