Volunteers are the lifeblood of any non-profit, no matter how large or small the organization. They often live and breathe the mission statement and seem to give more of themselves than seems possible. Rachele Stephenson is one such volunteer with Rainier Community Cares (RCC), a program of TOGETHER! that serves youth and young adults living in the Rainier, WA area.
Rachele may not seem like someone with time to spare. A busy mother of five, she and her husband Jonathon have a full plate. But volunteering is important to Rachele. In fact, prior to moving back to Washington, she volunteered with Salem Harvest, a non-profit in Oregon where she drove the food bank truck. Volunteering is in her blood and having five children didn’t slow her down. In fact, her kids help her out. “My oldest has been helping at non-profits since she was eight months old,” Rachele says. “She will be eight in September and she loves it. She misses the fruit harvest in Salem, though.”
It’s no surprise that after moving north, Rachele immediately started to look for another organization to help. “I was looking to get involved in a non-profit,” she explains. “I had just moved back and I took a survey that Rainer Community Cares was giving. They contacted me from the survey. At the time, I had three young children and it was something that benefitted my kids and others in town.”
That was three years ago. Rachele started out by attending events and meetings and served as a secretary for two years before becoming coalition chair last winter.
TOGETHER! recently rebranded, including updating their mission, vision and core values to better reflect the work they do in our community. The work that Rachele does with RCC is a shining example of the new mission – to “advance health and wellbeing of all young people.” RCC focuses on the welfare of youth by providing them with safe places to hang out and fun activities to engage in, all designed with scientifically proven strategies to reduce underage drinking and drug use. Reducing these behaviors has been shown to improve youth delinquency rates, mental health and academic performance.
“Rainer has a high need for activities for the kids and such a high poverty rate that free activities are really crucial,” explains Rachele. “Those capable of volunteering (with RCC) understand just how important this organization is.”
She adds that 60-70 percent of Rainier students are on free lunch, supporting the need for truly free events to encourage participation. Common free events include movie and games nights, parent nights, seasonal parties, barbecues and fun runs aimed at keeping youth off the streets.
Rachele was the lead for this year’s 5K Color Run/Walk on August 5. This event was open to everyone and had both youth and adult races. Participants received a white Color Run t-shirt, a packet of color powder, a pair of sunglasses, stickers, a bracelet and temporary tattoos. The event was a huge success.
In response to youth incidents in the community, including graffiti and run-ins with the Sheriff, RCC began offering teen nights as an alternative to attending parties after school sports games or on nights when no structured activity were planned.
Teen nights include playing sports together including volleyball and dodgeball tournaments. In addition, the events typically include a bounce house, board games and food – all free for the participants. “Teens have commented that they love playing competitive sports against their teachers and peers,” says Rachele. “They really enjoy these events and parents are relieved to know their kids aren’t getting into trouble.” Instead, they are enjoying time with friends and getting a little exercise, too.
RCC and TOGETHER! know it’s not just youth who need a helping hand. Parents also need support as they raise their kids in a world very different from the one they grew up in. TOGETHER!’s core values include mobilizing families, schools and communities to solve community problems, all while leading and supporting change where necessary to give encouragement and care to children. To that end, RCC provides free parenting classes that include childcare and a free dinner.
“I have two children with special needs and these classes really helped me become more educated on different ways I could approach things with them,” explains Rachele. “Parents just can’t do it alone and these classes allow parents to get the help they need for free.”
The most recent class centered on children’s behavior and was taught by a teacher from Centralia College who attended a special training on Autism-spectrum behavioral challenges. She shared what she had learned in her own training during RCC’s 12-week free parenting course, spreading her knowledge widely and impacting numerous families.
For the coming year, RCC’s goal is to increase their family and community activities. The group plans on hosting a teen night and a movie night once a month instead of quarterly as they did last year. Rainier Community Cares meets on the second Wednesday of each month at Rainier High School. Meetings are open to everyone and new volunteers are welcome.