As a journalist, I enjoy sharing the many community programs available in Sonoma County. Fence at The Top, a registered 501(C)(3) non-profit out of Santa Rosa is one such program. It’s a “comprehensive mentoring program for at-risk youth in Sonoma County.” Under the direction of founder Honor Jackson, it’s been around since 2007. I had the pleasure to interview Jackson on January 14. You can also read about the program at their website: www.FenceAtTheTop.com.
Their mission is to provide youth they serve “with vital life skills that will foster the greatest success possible for each of them.” Their goals are to provide a safe haven, instill a sense of purpose and develop skills and tools to help the kids reach their goals. To do that they provide tutoring, run sports and health programs, conduct mentoring sessions, take field trips and sponsor Bible Study classes.
Space is provided in partnership with the Community Baptist Church located at 1620 Sonoma Avenue in Santa Rosa. They employ 4-6 tutors, two are bilingual and have 15-20 regular volunteers. Youth they serve range from ages 7 to 18. Jackson said “volunteers are so key” to what they do. Most years, they serve between 150-200 youth. This year because of the pandemic they are working with just 3-4 dozen youth with virtual online efforts. Their center is open between 3-5 p.m. as most tutoring is done after school. The church also serves as a central drop off and pick-up site when field trips are taken.
Jackson, a retired NFL player, graduated Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley and obtained his degree from University of Pacific in Stockton. Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1971, he was traded to the New England Patriots as part of a multi-player deal. He played various positions to include Wide Receiver and Strong Safety. Signing as a free agent in 1973 with the New York Giants, he played with them until a leg injury ended his career a couple years later. He maintained his relationship with the NFL, serving as President of the Northern California chapter of the NFL Alumni Association from 1996 until 2012.
After football, Jackson had a 30-year career as a manager with Longs Drug Store, retiring in 2006. Half his employees were teenagers, so he was no stranger to challenges youth faced. But it didn’t start there. He said “My mom always, when I was a kid, had us helping” others. And through that, “I always wanted to work with youth.” And he did so. He worked with kids at the various Juvenile Halls during his school years and football’s off-season. He said he “always had this feeling I wasn’t helping enough. So, I wanted to do something to help them not get there.” Thus, he started Fence at The Top.
Jackson said he “always felt physical activity should be a part of what we do.” Using his connections with the NFL, he’s run sports camps in Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa. Some of the expeditions the kids went on were to sports venues to watch professional sport teams play. He also said, “that we have taken youth who have never been outside of their city or across the Golden Gate Bridge to places like Washington DC, Tahoe to experience the snow, see the plays The Nutcracker, Hamilton and meet and greet local celebrities.” He also brings in motivational speakers, involves the kids in community service, and shows them how to do an employment search. Tutoring and mentoring sessions are also key program elements.
As to the challenges of starting and running his program, Jackson said the number one challenge is always money. You must fund raise and get enough donations “to do programs you’d like to do.” Most years the budget runs around $110,000. It goes towards hiring tutors, outfitting the space with computers and materials, providing transportation to events, obtaining bibles to give the kids for the Bible Study classes. This year they gave four laptops and four Chrome books to kids that needed them for distance learning and stay connected with the program. The overwhelming percentage of kids in the program are from disadvantaged or families of color; but not always. They serve all kids.
Most families find out about the program through word of mouth. Parents fill out information and permission forms. They either drop the kids off, or a volunteer picks them up. Since volunteers are working with minors, they go through the usual background check/fingerprints process. If a drop in happens, they talk with Jackson. He listens to them to find out what’s going on, then reaches out to the parent(s). It’s a “Listen, Reach Out, and Enroll” process.
How can you help? Donations by check can be sent to Fence at the Top, c/o Honor Jackson, P.O. Box 1399, Rohnert Park, CA 94927. Volunteers are always needed to chaperone on trips, help at camps, work in the center, or otherwise help the kids. If interested, you can reach out to Jackson at: 707.584.2856 office or 415.706.1325 cell, or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.