From left, Giulia Gislimberth pushes the target, causing the bucket of water to fall over Noah Roldan on Wednesday, June 8 at La Cumbre Junior High School in Santa Barbara, Calif. "It's a great way to start off the summer," Gislimberth said about the event. | Credit: Rodrigo Hernandez

With the beaming sun, cheering of children and mixed smell of sea breeze and freshly-cut grass — it is finally summer in Santa Barbara. 

Students and families in search of free entertainment during the break can enjoy a safe and fun environment with the “Summer Nights” events being held at La Cumbre Junior High School every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evening until July 15. 

“This has been a project four years in the making,” La Cumbre Principal Bradley Brock said. “We know that research and evidence is pretty clear that if we can bring them enrichment activities, then we’re providing a safe environment for families on the Westside.”

A joint effort between the City, Santa Barbara Unified School District, and the Parks and Recreation department, “Summer Nights” focuses on supplying local kids and their families with activities and resources during the summer season, with the goal of providing a healthy, supervised outlet for youth. 

Noah Roldan (center) triumphantly holds the Xbox he won during the raffle on Wednesday, June 8 at La Cumbre Junior High School in Santa Barbara, Calif. Three prizes were given out at the event, including a staff shirt and a McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams gift card, with the gaming console being the grand prize. | Credit: Rodrigo Hernandez

“What I’ve noticed is that this is a tourist town. If you don’t have services for young folks, they’re just hanging out. And unfortunately, there’s a small percentage of young people that get caught up in doing things they shouldn’t be doing, said Ismael Huerta, Youth Outreach Worker with Santa Barbara Unified School District and the originator of the “Summer Nights” program.  “This is a good way to provide services for them and their family so they get involved and more engaged.”

In addition to youth outreach, Huerta also runs a young men’s group at Dos Pueblos High School. After listening to his students and noticing a lack of positive activities for youth, he was inspired to organize the events.

Coming from Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, Huerta himself was influenced by the resources available for this generation. The neighborhood was prone to gang violence and over-policing and was seen by the city as a high-risk neighborhood. Huerta was inspired by a program called “Summer Night Lights” that had a positive effect on the residents. The program has been around for 15 years now, providing meals and activities to youth and families across L.A. and the San Fernando Valley.

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Here in Santa Barbara, Huerta began advocating for a similar program since 2009. He was met with some pushback, he said, after initially pitching the idea of hosting events at middle schools across Santa Barbara with students competing against each other. 

“It was surprising that people didn’t think it was doable,” he said. After a few years, Huerta brought the idea back before the City Council in late 2018 and received support from councilmembers and parks and recreation staff.

After successful meetings with city officials and the school district, the first “Summer Nights” were planned for 2020 but were stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hiatus gave organizers a chance to plan for the program’s return, and set activities for the first six weeks of summer 2022.

“It’s about not only just our youth, but their parents and grandparents and bringing everybody together,” said Councilmember Eric Friedman, who along with Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez was one of the early supporters of “Summer Nights”

Zumba instructor Josette Tkacik held a class at the Summer Nights event, encouraging all those to join in on Wednesday, June 8 at La Cumbre Junior High School in Santa Barbara, Calif. Normally held at the Carrillo Recreation Center, the Zumba class made an appearance at the youth event. | Credit: Rodrigo Hernandez

The Wednesday, June 8, kickoff event featured bounce houses, a deejay, free meals from the Santa Barbara Unified School District Food Services, Kona Ice snow cones, Zumba, and a range of games and sports. A raffle also took place, with one lucky winner taking home an Xbox. 

Each week will have a new theme, and another Xbox will be raffled on July 15. Later events will include a collaborative mural project with the Santa Barbara Arts Alliance, self-defense classes, and more. 

“I encourage community members to come forward like Ismael and encourage us to do more things like this that will benefit the community as a whole and especially our youth right now,” said Councilmember Gutierrez.

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