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Cristin Felso, Sonoma’s teen advocate, heads to Washington state

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The indomitable Cristin Felso is leaving us. For those who know her and, for those who may not have had the pleasure of making her acquaintance, Felso, 47, is the powerhouse behind what is today known as Teen Services Sonoma (TSS).

The decision to leave Sonoma was a difficult one for Felso but life in a new town beckons. Along with her husband, Paul, Felso will make the move to Friday Harbor in Washington state’s San Juan Islands to be close to family and grandchildren.

Starting in 1999 as a volunteer with the El Nido Teen Center, Felso spent the next six-and-a-half years supporting the Valley’s teens and building the center from a small drop-in spot to what it is today. This includes The Lovin’ Oven, Operation Bicycle, the Cowboy Cab fundraiser and much more.

The Early Years

At its inception, El Nido operated out of run-down building on Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs – almost literally ON Highway 12, so close to the road was the actual edifice. Just barely older than a teenager herself, Felso cultivated an almost instant rapport with the kids. It seems she had a gift for generating trust and respect while holding everyone to high expectations.

Digging in, she developed programs, nurtured teens, and built their confidence. The teens responded.

“With funding from the county, I was able to start a couple of prevention programs: one for drug and alcohol use and another to combat HIV infection and teen pregnancy,” said Felso. “We had a great Girls’ Group that would meet on Monday nights. Once in a while we’d have an overnight at the center and we’d laugh because the floor would vibrate from the trucks driving by on the highway. We had fun.”

Fun. That’s what Felso aimed for. Luckily, it’s also what she was good at. Having cut her teeth at Operation Youth and the No Name Café on the campus of Sonoma Valley High School, Felso was well versed in what clicks with teens.

During her tenure with Operation Youth and working with a local artist, Felso built a flourishing art community called the No Name Art Society. Gathering after school on Wednesdays, the group of 30 or so young artists produced original works of art in a safe, inclusive environment fostered by Felso.

“The No Name Café was really a vibrant community,” said Felso, who ran the center for six-and-a-half years. “During rainy weather, we were the only place with indoor seating and we’d often have 200 students who came through on a regular basis. It was a really great, open community where anyone could feel they belonged.”

In the intervening years, El Nido morphed into the Valley of the Moon Teen Center with the construction and opening of a beautiful new building in 2008. But the changes weren’t over yet.

In 2010, Operation Youth merged with Valley of the Moon Teen Center and became Teen Services Sonoma. After more than a few growing pains, which included the merger, staff transitions and a near economic collapse, Felso took over as executive director in 2011. According to Doug Hanford and Judy Scotchmoor, co-presidents of the board of directors, the organization has gained clarity of mission and the respect of the Sonoma community under Felso’s leadership.

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