Youth center leaders hope to change Lompoc one life at a time

After years of working for various nonprofits and community organizations in Lompoc, Chuck Madson and Tim Harrington are tackling their most ambitious project yet.

Youth center leaders hope to change Lompoc one life at a time
WANT TO LEARN MORE?: Chuck Madson and Tim Harrington are holding a one-hour community meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn in Lompoc on March 16 where residents can learn more about Future. For more information about the center, check out

click to enlarge Youth center leaders hope to change Lompoc one life at a time
YOUTH VOICES : Chuck Madson and Tim Harrington held Future’s first youth focus group in Lompoc City Council chambers last September.

Madson—who has developed substance abuse treatment programs in Santa Barbara County for years—and Harrington—who has spent the latter years of his career mentoring college students and serving on the boards of various community groups—began working on their plans for a youth center in Lompoc about two years ago.

They envision a location that fills gaps for young people between the ages of 16 to 20 years old who can’t find the assistance they need elsewhere. This includes education and job help, as well as a safe place where a student can hang out after school and grab a bite to eat if he or she doesn’t want to go home.

click to enlarge Youth center leaders hope to change Lompoc one life at a time
FOCUS ON THE FUTURE: By changing one life at a time, the youth center hopes to change the future of Lompoc.

They’re calling the center Future, and the basic goal of the project is to empower Lompoc’s youth to accomplish whatever it is they’re striving to achieve. This isn’t a panacea to all of the city’s problems—of which there are many—but it’s a way of moving the needle in the right direction with each youth who walks into the center, Madson said.

“Homeless issues aren’t getting any better, substance abuse is getting worse … . So what are we truly doing to help before they end up there?” Madson said. “It’s helping that population, those 16- to 20-year-olds so that they don’t have to end up hanging around the streets of our community, getting involved with drugs, not being able to get a job … I don’t want any youth to not have an option for something they want to do.”

Before describing what Future is, Madson and Harrington explain what it’s not. This isn’t a project aimed specifically at preventing kids from joining gangs and committing acts of violence. Obviously, they hope that through this center they’re able to reach kids prior to making poor decisions, but the uptick of violence in the city wasn’t the impetus for this project.

“We hope to empower the youth to not engage in that lifestyle, but that wasn’t our main focus,” Madson said. “There’s so much more to it.” 

Big needs

Cabrillo High School student Riley Wallace said she plans on leaving the Lompoc area after finishing her senior year to go to college in a different state. She feels there aren’t a lot of job opportunities for her locally, and she said many students she knows feel the same way.

“The common phrase is, ‘Leave and never come back,’” Wallace said. “That’s how the youth feel about Lompoc.”

Wallace is hoping that Future could change this mentality. She attended a youth focus group Madson and Harrington held more than six months ago. Afterward, Wallace and two other teenagers joined Future’s advisory council, which consists of adults from various professions.

“What I wish for the youth under me is for them to stay in Lompoc and be successful, which is not an option right now,” Wallace said.

She said she thinks the plans being developed for Future could appeal to younger people living in Lompoc because of the variety of programs they’re hoping to house within the center.

Wallace points to classes that could teach youth about financial decisions, such as learning how to save or budget expenses, as the most useful to her. Other students might be looking for help with homework or to be connected with food or mental health services, she said.

But the center shouldn’t be all about work, she said. It has to be a place where younger people can have fun, such as through music or art classes, or simply a place to hang out with other people their age. She said Lompoc is really missing that kind of space, and it adds to the apathy many youth feel about their town.

In addition to being a place where young people can engage in resources for education or entertainment, Wallace said that Future needs to be a safe space where all of the city’s youth feel welcome. She said that the top concern for most people her age is the gang activity and violence that’s taking place in the city. In 2019, there were seven homicides in Lompoc, and the shootings have continued into this year.

“Besides the fun part and the school part, in all seriousness, this can be a place for kids to have a home away from home,” Wallace said. 

Getting started

click to enlarge Youth center leaders hope to change Lompoc one life at a time
FIRST STEPS : The leaders behind Future have held meetings over the last nine months after securing funding from a local foundation.

Madson and Harrington began kicking around the idea for the youth center about two years ago, prior to the increase in violent crimes the city continues to experience. The conversation started when Harrington visited Madson while he was working at Coast Valley Substance Abuse Treatment Center in Lompoc to discuss restarting something similar to a youth employment program that had operated in the city more than five years ago.

This youth corps program was run through what is now called the Workforce Development Board of Santa Barbara County, and employed at-risk youth in the city to work on public projects. Harrington, who served on the board, said youth in the city really embraced the program, but it ended when its federal grant funding expired.

Madson and Harrington unsuccessfully applied for a $250,000 grant through the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Grant Program with the aim of bringing the youth corps concept back to the city.

“Once that didn’t materialize, then the perspective changed,” Madson said. “Because that was just addressing one population, the criminal justice involved. And I think both of us really wanted … to provide something to any of the youth in the community.”

Madson and Harrington reworked their concept and began thinking about a youth center where people from 16 to 20 years old could be connected to mentoring, entrepreneurship, job skills, and educational support. Harrington said they aren’t developing new programs, but rather creating a centralized, safe location where youth can be connected to various services that already exist in the area.

They approached the Santa Barbara Foundation to discuss this idea early last summer. The foundation’s North County director, Kathy Simas, said they awarded Madson and Harrington two $5,000 planning grants to further explore their idea because it aligns with the organization’s priority of promoting workforce development.

“The foundation viewed this as an opportunity to support building jobs skills in the youth in the Lompoc community to improve their opportunities for eventual employment,” Simas said in an email.

After receiving the money, Madson and Harrington formed an advisory council and began holding focus group meetings to define their concept. Madson said he envisions the center as a place where a youth could receive a menu of programs and then sit down with a mentor who could walk them through the center’s offerings. 

Some programs would be available all the time, such as an entrepreneurship class where students can create silkscreen projects or craft jewelry that they can then sell, Madson said. But the center will also have a calendar that lists when specific events are taking place.

Although official agreements still have to be worked out and signed, Harrington said he and Madson have been in contact with various organizations—such as Allan Hancock College, the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, and Family Service Agency—that are eager to provide programs and services through the center. 

But youth not interested in specific programs are welcome to stop by as well.

“It can range from a youth wanting to sit in a chair and listen to music and get a meal, or the youth who says, ‘I have no idea how to look for a job,’ and we’ll [help],” Harrington said.

As their planning meetings continue, Harrington and Madson are working on some of the project’s logistics—finding a building, preparing a business plan, and becoming an official nonprofit.

They’re working through these details and hope to have everything in place to open a physical location at the beginning of the 2020 school year. But despite not having a building to house the center, Harrington said he and Madson are ready to help any young person who needs assistance.

“Future is open; we don’t need four walls,” Harrington said. “Any youth can reach out to us.”

Restoring hope

click to enlarge Youth center leaders hope to change Lompoc one life at a time
FILLING GAPS: Chuck Madson (top left) and Tim Harrington (third from top right) have held numerous meetings with students in Lompoc to learn more about their needs.

Creating a safe space where the city’s youth can hang out after school fills a present gap in the community, said Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne, who is on the center’s advisory council. She said that 13,000 parents commute out of the city for work, which results in many kids returning to empty homes after school without support for homework or somebody to talk to.

“We don’t really have a singular place for our community’s latchkey, single-parent household, or disconnected families,” Osborne said.

Another member of the advisory council, Devika Stalling, who is also the director of the United Boys and Girls Club in Lompoc, said she believes this project is coming along at the perfect time. Stalling was born in Lompoc and notes how the level of violence in the city is much different than when she was young.

“I think back to the times of when I grew up here, how we walked around everywhere in town and now me being a mother of a teenage daughter, I don’t let my daughter walk anywhere,” Stalling said.

While speaking with younger people in the community, Stalling said she hears a lot about a sense of hopelessness, but she also hears from students who want to stay in Lompoc and help improve the city.

She’s hoping that Future can help restore this sense of hope by understanding what the needs of the city’s youth are and how to fill those gaps. But she said the center is also an opportunity to educate students on some job opportunities that already exist, such as at Vandenberg Air Force Base or within the agriculture industry.

Educating and connecting youth with job prospects is one of the primary missions of the center, and it plays out in various ways, Stalling said. This includes teaching students how to apply for jobs and craft résumés, as well as setting up job-shadowing opportunities.

The city of Lompoc is partnering with the center to do the latter, Osborne said. As a full-service city that oversees all of its own utilities, Lompoc employs various types of workers such as people who work on power lines or run the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Osborne said that although it may seem that Madson and Harrington are trying to create a center that can be everything for everybody, the basic goal for Future is to create a safe space where students can be connected to resources.

“Chuck and Tim have come up with a concept that provides hopes and open doors to any student who wants to take advantage of that,” Osborne said. “And that hasn’t happened here in a long time.”

Years of giving back

click to enlarge Youth center leaders hope to change Lompoc one life at a time
RESTORING HOPE : For the youth who don’t view Lompoc as a place with opportunities, the Future center aims to restore their hope.

Although Madson and Harrington began working on Future about two years ago, they’ve both been preparing for this project for much longer.

Madson said he decided to dedicate his career to helping other people while in Calipatria State Prison almost two decades ago. Madson—who is originally from the Los Angeles area—was addicted to methamphetamine for years while maintaining a steady job and being a husband and father.

But after his mother—who was living in Lompoc at the time—passed away from a brain tumor, Madson left his job and his family to move to Barstow to cook meth for a motorcycle club. After purchasing ephedrine pills—which can be used to make meth—from an undercover Department of Justice agent, he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison.

In prison, he shared a cell with a man who was serving a life sentence but nonetheless dedicated his time to helping other inmates. The man worked with a church in San Diego to organize car washes to raise money to put in other inmates’ commissary accounts, which allowed them to buy hygiene supplies or materials to write letters, Madson said.

“He accepted that he was going to serve a life sentence, but he wanted to make the most of it while he had the chance,” Madson said. “And so I took that, and I thought I had received a life sentence under the influence of drugs, but now I’ve been given another chance, and I need to do something with it.”

About 13 years ago, authorities released Madson from prison after serving half of his sentence. He spent four months on parole in the San Fernando Valley before a judge granted his request to be transferred to Lompoc.

For Madson, this was a chance to start over and become someone new. He moved in with his grandparents and enrolled at Allan Hancock College to work toward earning an addiction studies certificate.

After becoming certified, he began working at Coast Valley Substance Abuse Treatment Center, where he eventually became the director of programming. While in this position he created numerous addiction treatment programs in North County, and expanded the number of clients the center serves from 150 to 700.

Madson eventually left this position to work for Family Service Agency in Santa Maria, where he helped develop a substance abuse program focused on 12- to 24-year-olds. He’s currently employed as the program services manager at the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in Santa Barbara. But when Future opens, running the center will become his full-time gig.

Over the last decade, Madson has received awards and recognition from the community, which is something he previously didn’t think was possible.

“It’s a miracle that somebody like me who had no hope, now I make a difference in people’s lives,” Madson said. “I’m a member of the community in a positive way, not like what they labeled me years ago.”

click to enlarge Youth center leaders hope to change Lompoc one life at a time
COMMUNITY INPUT : People from various professions that affect and interact with youth are serving on Future’s advisory council.

For Harrington, his path to this project started with his parents. He said his mother grew up extremely poor, and his father’s family lost everything during the Great Depression, but yet, they always stressed the importance of helping other people.

Despite the humble beginnings, Harrington earned his degree in the Bay Area as a first-generation college student and moved to Lompoc 40 years ago. He then spent 20 years working in the aerospace industry before becoming a father at the age of 42 and leaving his career to work part-time gigs and consultant jobs, so he could spend more time with his family.

Aside from his parents, he points to becoming a father as the inspiration behind helping Lompoc’s youth. After his daughter graduated from high school in Lompoc, she went on to Stanford University where she’s since completed her undergraduate degree and is now working on her graduate degree.

“I would think about what we were able to do for her and go, ‘You know what, I can’t pay for that kid to go to Stanford, but can I maybe try to get them in that direction if that’s where they want to go?” Harrington said.

To further this goal, he joined the Allan Hancock College Foundation board of directors and began mentoring students enrolled in the college. He’s also a board member on the Lompoc Unified School District Community Education Foundation, Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, and the Lompoc Family YMCA Finance Committee.

“Being in my community as long as I have been, it just pulled me in that direction,” Harrington said. “There’s this common theme of youth, education, justice, equal chance.”

Madson and Harrington acknowledge that this center isn’t going to provide any quick fixes for Lompoc’s problems. Instead, they’re hoping to help improve lives one at a time. But Madson said that he believes empowering and providing opportunities to the city’s youth will benefit the community as a whole.

“I’m hoping that just by changing one youth at a time, we’re changing the community of Lompoc,” Madson said. 

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at [email protected].

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