By Genoa Barrow | Observer Senior Staff Writer

The center’s founders work to meet the needs of the community with the help of “neighborhood navigators.” Shown here, left to right, are Master Swygert, Dr. Gina Warren, Sherri Kirk, Michelle Belton, Aaron Cardoza, Marlyn Woods, and Sonia Smith. Dr. Warren calls them soldiers. (Photo by Robert Maryland)

DEL PASO HEIGHTS – The little white building sits across from Jimmy’s corner store and down the street from Grant High School. The outer facade gives away nothing of the magic that happens there. 

Driving by, one might see young people battling adults for bragging rights on a small black top basketball court that doubles as a parking lot or reciting poems through an amplified sound system, but the interactions are just a part of Dr. Gina Warren and Marilyn Woods’ mission to disrupt intergenerational trauma and poverty in Del Paso Heights and the areas surrounding the 95838 zip code. The two entrepreneurs founded the Neighborhood Wellness Foundation in 2015 after meeting through the Sacramento chapter of a social organization, The Links, Inc.

Theirs is a lofty goal, but one that both women have a vested interest in. Dr. Warren, a pharmacist, came to the area in 1977 and graduated from Grant High in 1983. Ms.Woods, who has a background in finance, grew up in nearby North Highlands. Her mother taught at North Avenue Elementary School. 

“We’re all generationally rooted in this neighborhood,” Dr. Warren said of herself, her co-founder and the “neighborhood navigators” who aid in the work. “What makes our organization so special is that it’s not just executive-level, it’s on the ground every day, knowing and understanding the needs of the community.”. 

Armed with the knowledge that their area is among the hardest hit by COVID-19, the Neighborhood Wellness team recently hit the streets to convince residents to sign up for vaccinations and the parking lot served as a vaccination site for a time.

Free programs include Sister To Sister healing group; an Innovators Academy for young students; Reaching Higher Heights, for adult learners; and the alternative sentencing program, S.H.E. (Strengthening, Healing and Empowering). While the program is known by its feminine acronym, it also now serves men looking to complete mandated community service hours, obtain their high school diplomas and address healing.

“Men don’t talk about their trauma. We’re really pushing that this summer and throughout the remainder of the year,” Dr. Warren shared.

There are also community discussions, in partnership with Dignity Health, Jubilare Evangelistic Ministries and Del Paso Union Baptist Church, that have been happening on Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re talking about childhood trauma and how it impacts overall mental and physical health, how it impacts academic performance and just letting people know that it’s like an infection that’s just brewing inside of you and if you don’t address it, it will manifest in other ways.”

During the pandemic, the Neighborhood Wellness Foundation has also been a beacon of light for area students trying to survive an altered learning environment. Many, Dr. Warren said, had their GPAs drop to 0.0 during the school closures. During the school year, students come in for homework help. Some come in because, in order to do distance learning, they have to distance themselves from crowded or chaotic households.  

It’s “The Heights” and staff are not blind to the rough realities of their surroundings. Cars race down the main thoroughfare, jogging memories of the time one crashed into the fence that surrounds the center. Shootings shut everything down in favor of children’s safety. 

“This has been a notorious area, right here in this spot,” Dr. Warren said.

“Historically, from the past decades after the crack cocaine epidemic, this was the hangout. Gangs. Gang violence. Drug dealing. When we opened up people were like, ‘what do you do over there?’”

In the beginning, they lent space to the local mentoring group Brother to Brother and eventually started a similar Sister to Sister group for girls at Grant High that ran from Fall 2016 to Spring 2018.

“By the time we were done, 67% of the girls that we were working with — most of them struggling academically or socially-emotionally — increased their GPAs by simply addressing their childhood trauma and lowering those barriers of adversity, helping to support them to move forward toward achievement. We knew we had something then,” Dr. Warren shared. 

They’ve built a community-focused engaged and empowered center, Ms. Woods said. 

“The people that are in our program, working and engaging the community, are the community,” she said. “It wasn’t us coming in and being accepted, it was the community really putting this together. We just gave them the means to do it.”

Ms. Woods, the former Chief Deputy Director for the California State Teachers Retirement System, is unapologetic about why she’s involved. After running a successful small business and travelling the globe conducting financial portfolio training, she wanted to “go deeper.”

“We do have a connectedness in this community and I wanted to be in a Black environment, that’s where I wanted to use my talents to uplift,” she said.

Dr. Warren was inspired by her father who smoked with his friends as an escape from memories of what they saw as Black Vietnam War veterans.  

“I wanted there to be a healthier space for them and that didn’t exist,” she said.

“I took my father to the Natomas Racket Club and nobody in there looked like him,” she recalled. “He just said, ‘take me out of here and that’s when I said, ‘we have to create a place where we feel welcome.’”

Dr. Warren said they’re also restoring what made the area special.

“This neighborhood, if you have historical perspective, was an incredible village. There were grandmamas, Big Mamas, Madea, there were the men, the fathers, all engaged in the development of the children, the youth of this neighborhood, being able to basically raise each other.”

Crack changed everything in the late 1980s.

“There were no resources to address that challenge as we have now with the opioid epidemic because it’s impacting a different demographic,” Dr. Warren said.

“This killed our community. It dang near decimated our village.”

“Legacies” of addiction, incarceration, high dropout rates, teen pregnancy, and illiteracy have resulted, she adds.

“These babies were raised in that space. These little babies became adults and then they became parents.”

Breaking the cycle is possible and the impact has been “literally palpable,” she says.

Ms. Woods agrees, crediting their team, most of whom were born and raised in the Del Paso Heights area.

“They are engaging in restorative justice themselves, because they were out in the community at that time. They have shared experiences. They can speak from a place of (authenticity) because that was them,” she said.

Dr. Warren and Ms. Woods are proud of what they’ve built in their little building on the corner of Clay Street and Grand Avenue, a place where residents can come without the fear of judgement or criticism. 

“When they come through these doors, they are loved,” Dr. Warren said. “They are cared for, but we’re no-nonsense in terms of ‘this is what you’re going to need to do if you want to change the trajectory of your life’ and they know that. But what they also get are the hugs, the understanding, the listening ear, and the information.”