In the year 1989, the University of Washington conducted a scientific research study on how to prevent youth alcohol and drug use and abuse. They invited individuals from all over the state to Seattle to discuss solutions to keep kids drug free, and a group of officials and community members from Thurston County attended. This initial meeting spurred the establishment of TOGETHER! First formed as a coalition, TOGETHER! grew into a nonprofit organization under founding Executive Director Earlyse Swift.
Though TOGETHER! formed under a mission to prevent youth substance abuse, the organization quickly expanded to include violence prevention in light of gang violence in the early 1990s. TOGETHER! continued to follow evolving public health science, reinventing themselves several times over three decades to tackle these issues in a whole new way, moving to upstream prevention methods. This conscious evolution included establishing neighborhood centers across the urban core of Thurston County.
Working with apartment complexes in low income neighborhoods, TOGETHER! became known as a place for families to go for support and a safe place for kids after school. The team coordinated an apartment in each complex from which to operate. Earlyse says. “We wanted to be a convenient location for moms to come and talk about parenting, and also for kids to come after school to get snacks and hang out.”
In the late 1990s TOGETHER! started substance free activity nights around Thurston County. These programs were in partnership with Parks and Recreation departments, school districts, and city and county governments. On Fridays, Teen Nights offered youth a safe place to have fun and bond in a substance free environment. Activities included dancing and sports so teens could hang out with their friends and have a good time. Although TOGETHER! no longer directly provides these program, local city governments have continued with these initiatives. Tumwater Youth Program (TYP) and Activities Coalition for Teens (ACT) in Lacey continue to provide substance free, fun and engaging activities for teens to participate in.
“This is the goal of TOGETHER!,” mentions Earlyse, “to create something that we believe is going to be effective at supporting kids and families, building a solid structure, then hopefully it will become institutionalized and continue.” And one key to creating long-lasting success is partnership. As their name suggests, TOGETHER! has always been about collaboration, because no one individual or organization knows everything, but together we have the power to create big change!
Over the years TOGETHER! has played critical roles in starting many programs in partnership with cities and school districts that go on to become major supports for the community. One such coalition is Rochester Organization of Families (ROOF), which has bloomed into an organization that provides family services, activities and food for families in Rochester. “TOGETHER! is not in it for the credit,” says Meghan Sullivan, one of TOGETHER!’s two Co-Directors, along with Meagan Darrow. “We always want what is best for kids and what is best for families and communities. Our goal is to center the needs of families and communities, so they get their needs met.”
Shaping the Future: The Club House
Over time TOGETHER! realized that although very successful, the neighborhood centers served only a very small group of families in each community. To reach larger groups of families, TOGETHER! focused on working with local school districts to serve students and families at their schools. This shift lead to the formation of one of two current signature programs of TOGETHER!, the Club House program. “TOGETHER! is very responsive to the community’s needs,” shared Katie Hatam, Communication and Development Manager at TOGETHER! “We have transformed with the community and have shifted with time.” This allows TOGETHER! to focus efforts where it will make the largest impact to those populations most impacted by inequitable systems.
The Club House program currently serves two elementary schools and two middle schools within North Thurston Public Schools. Schools are chosen based on the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch and in need of academic support. A no-cost program, Club House provides STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineer, Arts, Math) based before and after school and summer programs. Beyond the engaging and enriching academic programs and social skills gained through relationships with other students and trusted adults, Club House matches the school day to the workday for working families. Lydia Hawk Elementary and Chinook Middle School also provide dual language programs in English and Spanish.
Club House is made possible through amazing partnerships with the community. HDR, Inc. and HDR Foundation are major supporters of Club House, providing both grants to support the acquisition of supplies for a mobile STEAM lab, as well as dedicated employees who volunteer their time to show the kids that their community cares. Another major partner, North Thurston Education Foundation, invests in Club House by utilizing TOGETHER!’s Club House staff to help NTPS students access basic supports such as food, clothing, school supplies and other needs. “We know that if a kid’s basic needs aren’t met, they don’t attend school and absenteeism increases, impacting the student socially and academically, as well as impacting the school community” Katie adds.
Another program making a big difference in the Tumwater and Yelm School Districts is Community Schools, TOGETHER!’s other signature program. This evidence-based program started just over five years ago in Tumwater and expanded into Yelm for the 2017-18 school year. “The school is a hub for the community,” says Meghan. “There is an opportunity to use it as a place where families can access whatever they might need, such as obtaining bus passes, getting sports physicals, immunization, shoes, and clothing for special occasions such as prom. They also are able to sign up for basic health insurance, obtain glasses and even inquire about housing for the entire family.” These are just some of the examples that this program offers to support families in meeting their basic needs.
Each Community Schools program has a Site Coordinator to manage the students and family’s needs. Community Resource Centers at each school provide a physical location for students to drop in, but the Site Coordinators do more than work to ensure students’ and families’ basic needs are met. The program is successful because students and families aren’t sent away to other organizations all over the community to get help; Site Coordinators support families in resource navigation and ensure that families get what they need. It is also successful because Site Coordinators work to change systems to better meet the needs of kids and families. One example of this is a gap TOGETHER! helped to bridge between medicine and school, bringing Tumwater School District and SeaMar to the same table to remove barriers to youth mental health care. This connection made it possible for Seamar to provide mental health services at select schools, ensuring more students have more supports to realize their full potential!
Looking Forward to the next 30 Years
The future looks promising for TOGETHER! as the organization, which has tripled in size over the past six years, works diligently to ensure they’re responding to the needs of students and families in the community.
One way TOGETHER! responds to the evolving needs of the community is by offering their long-published Family Resource Guide in an online searchable format. After 25 years of publishing a paper booklet, TOGETHER! will roll out an online version later this fall, allowing even more access to much-needed information.
Finally, in exactly four weeks from today, on Wednesday, September 25, TOGETHER! celebrates 30 years with their anniversary “Breakfast of Champions” event. Staff, board members, friends and supporters will gather at 7:30 a.m. in Hotel R.L. for this free breakfast fundraiser. All current and former staff, volunteers, board members, supporters and friends, as well as anyone interested in learning more about and helping create the future of TOGETHER! are invited to attend. To reserve your seat, please RSVP on the TOGETHER! website. Want to help fill the room? You can invite a group large or small of friends, colleagues or anyone committed to the wellbeing of kids and families. Contact Katie Hatam for details.
To learn more about their services and programs, visit the TOGETHER! website.