Patrons at the Santa Fe Place mall peer through a storefront door on a recent afternoon, spotting a white computer room splashed with blue accents—the colors of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Fe.
Inside, club staffers are putting the final touches on a teen center—complete with computers and Wi-Fi, a stage for performances, video games and more—that opened this week.
Some city leaders and activists say something like this has been a missing piece on the city’s Southside for far too long.
City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta has been a vocal and frequent advocate of local government doing more for historically disadvantaged kids, both in his role as a governing body representative and as chief professional officer for the local Boys and Girls Clubs.
Donations and about $60,000 in federal school emergency relief funds—a small portion of which are required to go toward after-school programs—administered by the New Mexico Public Education Department are funding the center.
The opening comes in advance of a city-run teen center that Abeyta has long pushed for. Officials broke ground last month shortly after the City Council approved a $9.2 million construction contract; it’s expected to open in May 2023, right by the Boys and Girls Zona del Sol club.
Abeyta and others who spoke with SFR say that several recent shootings on the Southside—which police and prosecutors have insisted are linked to youth gangs—spotlight the need for more resources and activities for young people in the area.
For example: On Sept. 30, three people—Elijah Gallegos, 16, Brianna Romero, 20 and Davonne Romero, 23—were arrested on suspicion of shooting at cars and buildings in the area, leading to lockdowns at nearby schools. No one was injured, but Brianna Romero later died of a reported drug overdose after being jailed.
Abeyta tells SFR he was working in his office at the Zona del Sol club on Jaguar Drive when he heard gunshots that day.
Initially, he thought he’d heard a TV or large frame falling off the wall. Then, he saw a car driving away and realized what had happened. Abeyta and other club staff members went outside, where they talked with neighbors and saw shell casings on the ground. When police arrived, he told them what he heard and saw and turned over security camera video.
Abeyta says the teen center could help blunt teen violence, not only by offering young people activities and resources but also by giving them a community.
“That’s what they say about gangs is that’s where some of these kids get their sense of belonging from,” Abeyta tells SFR. “Sometimes they feel like these gang members or older people who are influencing them care about them, sometimes more than what they get at home, albeit it’s negative. But it’s their only source. Hopefully we will provide that alternative for them.”
Located in what used to be a Hollister outlet, the center includes a computer room, two game rooms, a performance space for young musicians, a cafe and a classroom that’s expected to be used for financial literacy, driver’s education lessons and other offerings.
Sarah Gettler, assistant executive director of the local Boys and Girls Clubs, says she hopes the club will also be able to build connections with stores in the mall to locate jobs for young members.
Leadership chose the location in part because it’s accessible, Gettler says; there’s both a school and city bus stop in front of the mall.
It will be open from 10 am to 8 pm Monday through Saturday and from 12 pm to 6 pm on Sunday. Young people who are interested in spending time there will be asked to sign up for a free membership.
Teen coordinators—including 17-year-old Alicia Gettler, who’s been in the club since she was in elementary school and is the daughter of Sarah Gettler—will staff the center.
The younger Gettler has worked for the club for a few years, mostly supervising younger children during the summer and then switching to data entry during the school year. She says being in the club has helped her get out of her comfort zone and meet new people.
“With everything that’s happened, these teens fall in bad situations because they don’t have this community like I did, so I think this center will be really impactful,” Alicia Gettler says.
She’s in her senior year at Monte del Sol Charter School—with plans to study either music or language at the University of New Mexico next fall—and will be running the front desk part time in the afternoons.
Like Gettler, Danielle Trujillo has been involved in the club from a young age, since she was in middle school. She’s 22 now and returned as a staff member after graduating from UNM in May.
Trujillo was named “Youth of the Year” for New Mexico in 2017, a Boys and Girls Clubs award that recognizes community service, leadership and academic achievement.
She received a scholarship, graduated free of debt with a degree in biology and is studying to take the admissions test for medical school.
“Being in the club brought so many good memories and a lot of friends and I feel like we desperately need that in our community, especially with all the violence happening with young teens these days,” Trujillo says. “They need support, they need to stay busy, they need resources. I just think it’s very important for this generation’s teens to have a place like this. I benefited from it.”
In a little over a year, two shootings have occurred outside of the Zona del Sol club. Ivan Perez, 17, was killed in the parking lot of the Bluffs at Tierra Contenta in July 2020.
“One of the things we learned during COVID is that the teenagers are forgotten and left behind,” Sarah Gettler says. “Ivan Perez was shot right across the street from our club. We started staying open until 8 o’clock at that club to make sure teens had a safe place to go in that neighborhood. But it’s just not enough.”