Community Youth Services – Focus on Street Youth, Foster Families



By Jennifer Crain

william tuningOn a recent tour of the Community Youth Services (CYS) building in downtown Olympia, CEO Charles Shelan showed me the large room that serves as Rosie’s Place, the organization’s drop-in day center for youth.

It was mid-day and youth were gathered in the center of the room where there’s a grouping of couches and comfortable chairs. At a sink along one wall a volunteer was spraying down the dishes. The clothing donation closet off the main room is full, organized by item. When we ducked inside, a young man was there, picking up a pair of shoes.

community youth services
Rosie’s Place, the drop-in center for street youth, will move to its new building near the beginning of 2014. Photo credit: Community Youth Services.

When CYS moved into its 20,000-square-foot building in 2001, homeless youth started hanging out in the lobbies, looking for a safe, dry place where they could spend the day. After considering how best to help, CYS opened Rosie’s Place, where homeless youth have access to computers, shower vouchers and hot meals.

“The research shows that if a young person has been homeless for three months, it takes about that long to get them off the streets,” Shelan says. Early intervention is a key of the program since it’s crucial to keeping youth from “habituating to a lifestyle in the streets.”

Early this year, in response to worsening conditions for street youth, CYS expanded services by launching a pilot program, Young Adult Shelter (YAS), a 10-bed shelter that uses the Rosie’s Place room by night.  Shelan says during the three-month pilot they housed 66 people “without incident.” This year the program, which is funded by the Thurston County HOME Consortium, will run November through May, aiming to serve youth, ages 18-24, seven days of the week.

But neither program will be housed in the room I visited on the second floor much longer. CYS expects to have both Rosie’s Place and YAS settled in a new location by the beginning of 2014. Renovations on a 7,000-square-foot downtown property are already underway.

Nichole Ketcherside, Rosie’s Place Case Manager and Street Outreach Advocate, says they will be able to offer more to street youth from their space in the new building while solving the current challenges of running a center for youth in a space shared with staff office workers.

“They need a lot of space, just to be teenagers,” says Ketcherside.

The new building has it.

“We’re going to have a full kitchen that’s a separate room from the rest of the drop-in center,” she says. “That’s going to allow us to do a lot more in terms of providing meals and supporting youth in developing independent living skills.”

They’ll be able to offer showers on site for the first time and increase the number of available lockers. The space also includes a classroom where services such as on-site GED assistance may be offered.

community youth services
In November, the 10-bed Young Adult Shelter will re-open. During a pilot earlier this year, the new program served 66 individuals. Photo credit: Community Youth Services.

Since they began serving youth in 1970, CYS has dedicated themselves to helping youth find another kind of space, as well: foster homes.

The CYS foster program has a 90% placement stability rate, due to their commitment to small caseloads, careful screening, thorough training and ongoing support of foster families. But Shelan says the agency, which places youth between the ages of 11 and 17, is in deep need of more foster families.

Potential foster parents must pass a background check and meet a number of other requirements such as proof of income. Foster homes are also screened and assessed at regular intervals.

Meghan Reichard, one of CYS’s foster home licensors, says they also look for the right character traits.

“Our ideal foster parents,” she says, “are open-minded, compassionate, calm and patient, with good communication skills,” and have an ability to “look at a youth’s behavior from a non-emotional position.”

Amanda Phinney, also a licensor with the organization, says foster parents in the system who have traits such as these far surpass the bad eggs. Public disgust over negative stories in the foster system leave many with a negative impression of the system overall, she says, even though positive stories outnumber the negative, by a lot.

She mentions one family, for instance, that has adopted three youths after fostering and has become a “forever family” (in all but the legal sense) to four more.

“Their family photo is just amazing. You walk into their home and you would have no idea who the foster kids are, who the biological kids are, who the relative relations are…and who they’ve adopted. They’re all treated with respect.”

Though exceptional, this sort of warmth and inclusiveness are not the exception, she says.

“Foster parents are an amazing resource in our community,” she goes on. “What they do is beyond words and there would be no way to adequately reimburse them because…everything in them is going toward helping these kids be successful. I don’t know how you could repay an individual for doing that.”

community youth services
Community Youth Services hosted a color run to raise awareness and funds.

Community Youth Services serves over 3,000 youth every year, employs around 100 staff and manages approximately 100 volunteers. A nationally accredited organization, they received a Distinguished Leader Award through Leadership Thurston County and the Thurston County Chamber Foundation in 2006. In 2010, Shelan was named Nonprofit Business Leader of the Year by the Milgard School of Business at University of Washington Tacoma.

Their success, in fostering, sheltering and more, can be boiled down to a phrase Charles Shelan likes to repeat:

“We don’t give up on the kids.”

Community Youth Services

711 State Ave NE
Olympia, WA 98506

(360) 943-0780

Follow the organization on Facebook here.

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