2023 All-America City Finalist – Gardena, CA

Gardena is a small but dynamic city in Los Angeles County with a reputation for taking risks and making positive changes. Once a home for farming and known as the berry-growing capital of Southern California, it is now referred to as the “Freeway City” because of its proximity to three main freeways.   

The city is in a state of change, shedding policies that no longer serve it and investing in services that benefit the community. Gardena is committed to reflecting on past mistakes, failures, and challenges while focusing on community growth and creating more opportunities for the future.  

Emergency Services Division  

For 40 years, the Emergency Services Division (ESD) in Gardena has been providing families access to a food pantry, case management services, homeless services, and youth and family programming. When the pandemic hit, it brought about new challenges for young people, specifically an increase in suicide rates. As a result, the ESD has committed to investing in youth by building new programs and partnerships in the following areas: 

  • Mental Health- ESD hosts a 12-week series of mental health workshops for adults/parents to learn about different mental health diagnoses, behaviors, and symptoms. Additionally, ESD strengthened their partnership with the school district by participating in campus events such as Passport to Wellness, Recovery Month, Suicide Prevention Month, and Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. 
  • Youth Programs- The largest community partnering events are the Back-to-School Giveaway and Police Department’s National Night Out, both of which give youth, families, and neighbors an opportunity to build relationships with the city and police department. Holiday programs are also hosted, providing food drives and gifts to children and teens.  
  • Homelessness Prevention- Gardena has been working on bringing more homeless services to the community by building relationships with local organizations, hosting surveys and community forums, and obtaining funding to prevent homelessness. The city has also been working on its first-ever Homeless Plan with the community’s feedback. The Food Pantry has expanded its services by growing partnerships, providing food and hygiene supplies to those experiencing homelessness. 

The City of Gardena has increased services for all populations, reduced mental health stigma, and increased youth programs and events in collaboration with stakeholders.  

Gardena Juvenile Justice and Intervention Program 

The Gardena Police Department founded the Gardena Juvenile Justice and Intervention Program (GJJIP) in May 2015 after monitoring many youths cited for misdemeanor offenses. The police department identified that youth would benefit from restorative services such as case management, service planning, life skills workshops, and community referrals rather than punishments such as harsh fines and court procedures. Since its inception, GJJIP has provided 746 youth, ages 11-17, with alternatives to suspensions, expulsions, and criminal records. In collaboration with the police department, school district, and community-based organizations, GJJIP aims to treat the underlying needs of at-risk youth and create a pathway away from the criminal justice system. 

GJJIP serves at-risk youth facing stresses such as financial insecurity, negative family dynamics, and substance abuse that often lead to harmful coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, gang activity, and crime. GJJIP and its partners offer resources, workshops, and life skills classes to help youth and their caregivers make positive decisions.   

Numerous success stories of youth who completed the program involve those who have turned away from gang involvement, finished high school, pursued continuing education, and entered the workforce.  

Response to Low Voter Turnout  

Despite changes to state regulations to encourage youth participation in elections, Gardena’s voter turnout remained low. In response, the city established programs to engage and educate youth and promote their civic participation. Programs were designed to instill civic engagement, inclusiveness and equity, collaboration, and innovation to create a shared vision that includes the community’s needs.  

  • Youth Commission- The Gardena Youth Commission focuses on professional development, encouraging youth to pursue careers in the public sector, providing youth insight to city policies, and engaging in local service projects such as the homeless count, clean-up days, canned food drives, and creating holiday baskets.  
  • Youth in Government Day (YIGD)- Gardena planned and hosted its inaugural YIGD in partnership with local organizations and schools. The event aimed to provide legislative and judicial experiences for grades 6-12, educate and empower teens regarding civic involvement, and highlight job opportunities when they turn 18. Over 75 students participated in the event, which included breakfast with the city council, team building and communication presentations, and tours of city departments. Students also worked on a project to identify a community need and present a solution using available resources.  
  • Seasonal Camps- Spring, winter, and summer camps allow teens to earn volunteer hours within the community. Camps focus on encouraging safety, fostering connections, preventing juvenile crime, and improving academic performance.   

The City of Gardena aims to increase voter turnout and community engagement through an innovative communications strategy and the continued development of programs that promote civic involvement.   

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