By Alana Smith
Parents concerned with and preventing youth involvement in drugs, crime and violence started the Youth Connection in Eatonville in 1988 with grassroots support and volunteers. We offer after-school and weekend activities and summer programs in the Eatonville School District. Our school programs are designed and work together as an integral part of working with youth at risk of falling into lives of crime, addiction and poverty.
The program maintains a nine-acre wild area (Wildcat Woods) at Weyerhaeuser Elementary School. All activities are conducted in a natural setting, lessening the stresses attributed to some behavioral problems exhibited by many youth today. In addition to the teaching aspect of environmental education, instructors actively integrate life-skill values into activities such as critical thinking, decision making, self-responsibility, teamwork, empathy, social skills and conflict resolution, all the while creating stewards of our environment.
We serve the ages of 5 to 18 and their families. Our third-graders start in class discussion of finding water, including rain, groundwater, streams, observing terrain, and plants, studying what is safe water, methods of filtering and disinfecting. Teams are given the task of locating water, then discuss ways and proceed to treat it. This exercise continues into fire-making so the water can be boiled. They will experience and explore animals from the inside out, starting with a bone class, then going through skin, fur, tracks and scat.
The fourth-graders will study weather – where does it come from, clouds, winds, which way and what does that mean. Then classes on salmon, their life history, why they’re so important to our watersheds and the whole food chain. Navigation skills is next, getting some basic knowledge on finding directions using a compass. After they get comfortable with that, they are put into small teams and given a map of Wildcat Woods with compass headings and marked sites. This is a very basic exercise to get the kids used to using a compass in finding directions.
The fifth-graders study the geology found in the school vicinity. They explore the rocks and land forms, what caused them, what it looked like years ago when a glacier three-quarters of a mile high stood where the school is. This opens the discussion on climate change, the cycles of change that occurred and will occur in their lifetimes. They are given the tasks of checking the environment before each class – temp, wind direction, cloud cover, etc. This leads into water-quality, watersheds and our effects on them. All of these challenges are designed for critical thinking and physical being.
Located at Eatonville Elementary School, this program provides a safe place to learn, grow and develop relationships with caring adults through character-building activities, structured activities and learning valuable life skills, along with having fun. Our after-school programs provide care for 5 to 18-year-olds Monday through Friday throughout the school year. It includes a healthy snack, homework help, mentoring, and arts and crafts.
Youth Connection has the only after-school programs within the Eatonville School District. In addition to daily activities, instructors actively integrate life skill values into activities such as critical thinking, decision making, self-responsibility, teamwork, empathy, social skills and conflict resolution. School Connections holds violence prevention programs for all youth attending our programs. These programs are designed to provide prevention and long-term reduction in violence in youth. With instructors’ mentoring and selective activities designed for positive results, this is essential in keeping kids safe and to coordinating effective out-of-school programs that make high-quality learning opportunities available to all children.
Children do better when their families do better, and families do better when they live in communities that provide opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and social networks that empower residents and connect them to supports. Our programs better prepare children and youth for success at a time when many parents work outside the home. A variety of factors are associated with children’s academic, social and emotional achievement. A child who returns from school to an empty home because his or her parent or parents are away at work, or a child who is often left at home with little or no parental supervision, can bring forth negative effects. Studies show that younger students left home alone for more than two hours a day reported higher levels of behavioral problems, higher rates of depression and lower levels of self-esteem than other students. The effects on these children differ with age. Loneliness, boredom and fear are most common for those younger than 10 years old. In the early teens, there is a greater susceptibility to peer pressure, potentially resulting in such behaviors as alcohol and drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and smoking. Quality out-of school time gives opportunities to help working families, keep young people safe and allow kids to develop the skills they need to compete in the global economy. These young people receive the tools needed for them to have positive roles as citizens of the future. Here they have available to them dedicated staff whom are caring adults and volunteers that support and help in many ways.
Teen Weekends at Eatonville Community Center, teens and young adults together playing dodge ball, along with the free monthly family dinners at the center, continue to bring youth and families together.
With 300-plus youth participating in the programs each year from the greater Eatonville area and with no other after-school programs in the area, our programs are crucial to our community. It allows city leaders and community stakeholders to collaborate around a common vision, ensuring that all children have access to safe after school programs. Through community service projects for the town, the program is fostering community relationships in our youth and with our community. Children and youth not engaging in violent behavior or displaying serious conduct problems measure successful behavior changes along with community involvement of our youth showing communication skills, practicing conflict-resolution skills and problem-solving is a product of healthy and safe children and teens.
These young people in the program are our future. Wherever they are in the coming years, they will become the parents, homeowners, scientists, planners, teachers and voters. We need to give them the right tools to make better decisions that will affect themselves, their families and help build and strengthen their communities. Youth Connection’s vision is to:
• To see every child in a safe place during the after-school hours.
• Provide enriched educational programs, life skills and mentorship to those in need.
• Provide these services to all youth who want/need them.
Please know that we are not funded through the Eatonville School District. We are strictly supported by fund-raisers, donations and grants. During this difficult economic time, like many others, our sources of funding are dwindling quickly. With hundreds of more competing for less dollars in the grantmaking world, it has become a challenge to continue to offer these programs you have just read about. Please come to our fund-raising dinner and dessert auction and support the youth of our community March 14 at 6 p.m. at the Eatonville Community Center.
Alana Smith is executive director of Youth Connection.