Drop-in program provides safe haven for Plateau kids

Travis Lear (red hat) and Ryan Raczkowski play video games during a recent afternoon at the Drop-in Center. Photo by Hilary Maynard -
Travis Lear (red hat) and Ryan Raczkowski play video games during a recent afternoon at the Drop-in Center. Photo by Hilary Maynard
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By Hilary Maynard, The Courier-Herald

The building that houses Enumclaw's youth center is easy to miss, but to the teens who participate in the center's Drop-In program, the cubby located between the senior center and Plateau Outreach Ministries is a second home.

Posters cover the walls of a small lobby, reminding the young adults that drugs, weapons and profanity are not allowed in the building. A hand-scrawled poster reads "up with hope, down with dope." There are numerous warnings to lock up bicycles (they could be stolen) and the area is full of resources and pamphlets addressing public health, teen parenting and domestic violence.

The long hallway passes a computer lab, an art room, a kitchen and the blue metal doorways of the counselors' offices. The back room is a teenage dream: free arcade games, a pool table, TV, comfortable couches and chairs and an old piano to play on. This is the Drop-in Youth Center.

The center is a place for Enumclaw youth 10 to 18 to come and go during the long days of summer and after school during the school year. The center is open 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and hours change to accommodate the academic year.

According to Pat Peterson, branch manager for Enumclaw Youth and Family Services, the center has evolved from a place to simply hang-out to an after-school, drop-in enrichment center with an emphasis on learning.

"It's a safe, fun, learning environment," she said.

The center provides homework help, as well as after-school activities. During the school year, activities coincide with monthly themes. Themes center on issues like resisting peer pressure and celebrating diversity. Efforts are made to teach teens the importance of building relationships within the community. Teens can choose to participate in the activities or use the afternoons to socialize with friends.

"There's not a lot of things for kids to do in Enumclaw," Peterson said. "Many of them come from single-parent households and there's no one home when they get home. They come here for safe, supervised fun."

In addition to the Drop-in Center's many games and activities, the youth center also has a new computer lab. According to Peterson, the Weyerhaeuser Corporation donated the money for the six computers early last year. Brand new and equipped with the Windows XP operating system, the computers are used by both the youth and senior centers to teach and play games.

Field trips also are popular with teens who frequent the Drop-in Center. Tuesday is field trip day. Recently, the center took the teens for a hike at Greenwater Lake. Another trip on the schedule was to the Seattle Aquarium.

"It's a really rewarding experience to be in this field, working with kids," Peterson said.

Terry Larrabee, the center's client services coordinator, agreed. "I think we build relationships with all of the kids," she said. "Sometimes, all they need is someone to talk to, or someone to referee their games. I think we keep a lot of kids off the streets."

"I love the computer lab," said Anna Martin, 15. "Without the Drop-in Center, I'd probably just be hanging out. But I don't know where."

The center is not just a place for teens, however. Family counseling and aid is an active and ongoing part of the center's work. The center offers counseling for up to 100 families a year.

"We consider ourselves a resource center for kids and families," Peterson said.

The center is a resource for those looking for housing, employment and financial help.

"The main focus of the center is on the youth," said Peterson. "But we recognize that each individual is part of a family unit. The center works hard to strengthen the whole family."

The staff of the Enumclaw Youth and Family Services is sparse. Eleven professionals, including therapists, caseworkers and even a chemical dependency professional work to provide counseling to children and families as well as provide the essentials.

"We are all in this business because we have a passion for helping kids," Peterson said. "We are really dedicated to them."

According to Kelli Patrick, the center's case manager, the center provides for a client's basic life demands. "We can provide food, shelter, clothing and financial help," Patrick said. "We can help clients with their DSHS claims, we can help them apply for social security and health benefits."

Patrick said some families also need educational assistance, getting their children into the right schools.

"I'm so passionate about this," Patrick said. "It's very rewarding, but at times it can be extremely difficult. It's hard to walk away from someone you really can't help. It's hard to walk away."

The counseling center was built three years ago and is located in a house down the street from the youth center. Potential clients are quickly screened and usually in weekly appointments with a counselor within a few weeks.

Peterson said the center tries hard to make its services available to everyone.

"We take insurance and medical coupons. We have sliding fees," she said. "We do counseling in the Enumclaw and Carbonado school districts. We do home visits. We serve a diverse population of kids and families from low income to high income."

Peterson said often, even simple things like transportation can be a real issue to families trying to get help.

"It's important that we can go to them, or bring them here," she said. "We have our own van. Our goal is to remove the barriers that prevent people from accessing out services."

Enumclaw Youth and Family Services is a branch of Auburn Youth Resources and operates with a yearly budget of about $400,000. The non-profit center's budget is made possible by 14 different donors, including King County and the city of Enumclaw.

"We get about $75,000 a year from the city," Peterson said. "It takes about $100,000 to run the Drop-in Center. It's a major program, funded mostly by the city and a grant from King County."

Peterson said the center would like to offer more programs, but it relies on outside funding and next year's budget is questionable.

"Of course we would love to provide more, especially in family counseling and emergency aid," Peterson said. "The money's just not there."

Regardless of the number of programs put on by the youth center, recent surveys indicate that the staff has succeeded in providing a positive environment for Enumclaw youth. When individuals were asked how the Drop-in Center has helped them, answers ranged from "It helps me with my anger," to "It helps me get along with others" and "It helps me have someplace to go after school."

The Drop-in Center is just one of many programs run by the Enumclaw Youth and Family Services Center. Besides field trips, movie and karaoke nights, the center runs a program for teens wanting to get clean and sober and a "Back on Track" program that helps teens deal with substance abuse and life skills. The center's three-day-a-week summer lunch program provides a midday meal for more than 15 young adults. Volunteers from area churches donate their time to run the program.

"I've run these types of programs on the East Coast and I've never seen anything like this," Larrabee said. "This community is something else."

(This is the first in a two-part series about area youth centers.)

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