history of say yes!
Though S.A.Y. Yes! Pico Union started in September of 2001, its story began more than 15 years earlier when the leaders of the First Evangelical Free Church sensed God's call to love its rapidly changing community in word and deed. As many immigrants from Central America were pouring into Pico Union seeking refuge from their war-torn homeland, the church began to offer English classes and counseling to help immigrants to become legal residents. Thousands were helped and, in the process, many came to know Jesus Christ as their Savior and a Spanish-speaking congregation was birthed. When many English-speaking churches either fled to the suburbs or adopted a fortress-mentality to separate themselves from their communities, the church made a decision to walk with the community, meeting felt-needs and seeking peace for the community and abundant life for its families. That decision set the course for years to come.
In the 1990's one of the biggest issues that families in Pico Union struggled with was how to help their children succeed in school. The cords of poverty, rampant gang violence, cycles of abuse, broken families, under-resourced schools, and void of role models and mentors formed a web that contributed to holding back 50-75% of students from graduating high school in local schools. The church responded to requests from families placing many students from local colleges as well as church volunteers in the homes of children in the neighborhood to provide tutoring and holistic nurturing.
In the year 2000, Scott and Sarah Yetter came on staff with the church to help mobilize the English Congregation to seek God's will and vision. As they intended to reach out to young, English speaking adults in the community, children and their families flooded their apartment and ministry events. They began tutoring kids after school and recruiting others to do the same at the request of their parents. As more and more parents voiced the need for homework help and a safe place for their kids to go after school, the church began to sense God's leading toward what became the S.A.Y. Yes! Center.
In researching different models for doing real development with kids and their families - as opposed to just giving handouts - the model of S.A.Y. Yes!, developed by Here's Life Inner-City in conjunction with John Perkins, seemed to be the best way for the church to minister to the whole child and their family in a long-term, relational way. S.A.Y. Yes! is committed to fostering long-term mentoring relationships (ideally 5+ years) between children and a caring adult. Each adult mentor has a maximum of 5 students they are mentoring so that they can be deeply involved in the lives of the students (home, school, church and social).
Upon hearing that we could start S.A.Y. Yes! with as little as a $10,000 budget and three volunteers who could put in 18-20 hours a week, we began to pray. Because the church had been shrinking (not many adult English-speakers in the neighborhood) and because it had finished the last five years with a significant deficit, $10,000 seemed enormous. Yet as the leadership committed this to prayer, God gave clarity, unity and courage to go forward confident that He would provide. Letters were sent to some faithful friends, and at the end of the first year $20,000 had come in and the church finished its first year of several consecutive years in the black. We learned the lesson that God will provide if we step out in faith and obedience and He will bless above and beyond what we ask.
So, after about 8-months of preparation and planning, the S.A.Y. Yes! Center, Pico Union was launched in September, 2001. Sarah Yetter directed the center and Ben Powell and Cathy Ortiz were committed volunteer mentors. We started off with 15 kids, grades 1-5, chosen by lottery from the immediate blocks surrounding the church. By the end of the year we had over 20 kids on a waiting list wanting to join the center. Read on in the History of the Nehemiah House to hear what happened next.