Even at 65, Tom Amato still keeps the memory of supportive parents and relatives close to his heart. And at the guidance center he has created for at-risk Upvalley teenagers, recreating that family-style safety net of adults, he believes, can be the way into a troubled young person’s heart.
“Extended families are rare now, so the community must participate,” the longtime St. Helena resident said of the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center in Angwin, which the educator launched in 2004. “The village becomes the extended family. We teach the ‘village’ what they can do to help accomplish that goal.”
“They treated me like I was one of their own,” he said of the relatives and teachers who influenced his younger self. “Now, I treat these children like they’re my own.”
Open for three hours after school from Monday to Thursday, the Youth Advocacy Center’s base near the Pacific Union College campus has served both as haven and clearinghouse for helping students from the fifth through 12th grades. The center’s reach, however, stretches well beyond its walls and, according to its creator, into teenagers’ deepest needs.
Staff and volunteers connect students and their parents with counselors and teachers, guide them into youth art and film projects, or team up youths with local volunteers in service projects, such as the Food of Love campaign to prepare meals for cancer patients.
“What I found was that there’s no emphasis in any system on the mental, the emotional well-being of children,” he explained. “There’s the family system, the educational system, the faith system and the community system — and I question if any of them focus, as their first priority, on the emotional well-being of children. That’s why I do what I do.”
Amato’s path to his current mission has been paved by diverse experiences — from four decades teaching from grade school to the college level, to a parallel career running an electrical contracting firm, and even to the memory of new fatherhood in 1976.
“When I started teaching, I used to blame the parents for a lot of the bad things that occurred — and then I became a parent,” he recalled dryly. “There is no one to blame; people like to blame the family, the educational system, for the crises we’re experiencing. But the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child — that’s not an option but a fact.”
Prompted by an old high school classmate, Amato had weighed the possibility of opening an activity center for teens. But only a month after launching his project as the Angwin Community Teen Center, he began to realize the size of his task reaching out to disaffected teens — when five Angwin youths ran away from home to camp out down the hill in St. Helena.
He found the runaways living on the street or bunking with friends, spending much of their time around the Carnegie building. But to his surprise, he remembered, the teens asked not for normal handouts but for supplies to put together an art show in the building. Amato gave them $100 and six pairs of hinged doors to use as displays for their artworks — observing the sight of people for whom a voice, a chance to express their thoughts, was seemingly as vital as food.
Echoing a parable of a dove asking a cloud the number of snowflakes needed to snap off a tree branch, he described his goal in terms both modest and wide-ranging.
“We try to be the snowflake that makes the difference,” Amato said. “We do what we can. We love them, in spite of everything.”
This story has been modified since its original posting.