Before a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday night at Smith River Baptist Church, Noemi Hernandez helped interested parents fill out registration forms.
Hernandez, the Building Healthy Communities organizer for Smith River, also needed $2 per child to cover the cost of the Del Norte County Recreation Department’s newest program: open gym sessions in the church’s gym, focused on full-court basketball.
As parents signed up their children, Del Norte County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina, a lifelong Smith River resident, was asked what might happen if kids didn’t show up to the open gym.
“If it’s wildly empty, we have to figure out why,” he said. “If we need more outreach or something else.
“But I’m pretty optimistic,” he added. “Look out here.”
Sarina gestured toward the gym floor, where a dozen boys and girls flung volleyballs and basketballs across the court, squealing with delight.
“And that’s just one age group,” Sarina said with a confident smile. “We haven’t got to the older kids yet.”
A year’s worth of meeting with Smith River community members, raising awareness and navigating county bureaucracy led up to a crucial benchmark: A minimum of 10 kids needed to participate in the first open gym session for continued support and investment at the county level.
Twenty-five showed up on Wednesday, the first day.
“Recreation is really something for everyone,” Hernandez said. “It is a common issue.”
The ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrated much more than the availability of an open basketball court.
It was a touchstone moment for Smith River residents, who banded together to accomplish a common goal.
“Everyone has grown so much,” Hernandez said. “That empowerment that they have now, those are tools they have forever.”
Speakers at the ribbon cutting emphasized the importance of civic involvement in their speeches — in English and Spanish. The organizing committee was primarily composed of bilingual and Spanish-speaking women who worked to involve Smith River’s Hispanic residents in the process.
“The Hispanic community is coming forward in ways they haven’t previously,” Sarina said.
Open gym sprang from a single unifying issue: The kids of Smith River not having enough to do. If children had an outlet taking them away from unhealthy — and possibly criminal — activities, the community as a whole would benefit.
“We don’t have any recreational activities like Crescent City,” said Smith River resident Annabell Dominguez, a member of Hernandez’s organizing committee. “Traveling back and forth is a hardship. As working parents, we struggle with (time management) for sure.”
As early as November, Hernandez began meeting with community members in groups and in one-on-one sessions. From there, the organizing committee formed “to find out what do we need, where do we start,” according to Dominguez.
The group initially wanted to raise funds for a city park but scaled back to an open gym due to budget difficulties.
“We had to be real thoughtful,” Hernandez said.
Organizers met with Sarina; Mike Sullivan, chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors; and John Horner, coordinator of the Recreation Department, during the summer.
“To get different communities around the area involved, (organizers) have to do lot of footwork,” Horner said. “The community did a great job. They put in the footwork and found what the kids wanted out there. Noemi and their group did tons of work to make this happen.”
They learned about insurance concerns — the Recreation Department is helping to cover any issues that may arise. They needed a facility — Horner introduced them to Andy Herndon, youth pastor at Smith River Baptist Church. Herndon and pastor Steve Alexander agreed to host the kids in the church gym. (Herndon and his wife, Lindsey, are running an after-school tutoring program concurrent to open gym.)
In a crucial last step, the organizing committee hosted a public meeting, attended by Sarina and Sullivan, on June 29 at Smith River School. Organizers presented the final plan for the open gym program, addressing each concern raised along the way, in order to gain approval of the Board of Supervisors.
“They asked us, will you commit to this and can you do it?” Sarina recalled. “The answer was yes.”
What helped Smith River’s case, Sarina admitted, was the cost-effective nature of the proposal.
“The reality is, it has to be financially feasible for the county to provide outreach to the local communities,” he said. “(The Recreation Department) is fighting for every penny.”
To Hernandez, there is nothing small about Smith River’s accomplishment, regardless of scale.
“This is the beginning of something big,” Hernandez said.