Community Foundation revives program for teens

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

Outside, the temperature was dropping.

Inside, a few dozen sweaty teenagers in T-shirts and shorts were spending a late fall Friday evening playing pickup basketball on two courts at Marshall Community Center, in a gym open beyond its usual hours.

In another room, teens played video games or table games such as pingpong or air hockey.

Teen Late Nights

• What: Supervised basketball, video games, table games and more.

• Who: Students ages 11 to 18.

• When: 8 to 11 p.m. Fridays through May. There will not be a Teen Late Night on Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving.

• Where: Firstenburg Community Center, 700 N.E. 136th Ave., and Marshall Community Center, 1009 E. McLoughlin Blvd.

• Call: Firstenburg Community Center at 360-487-7001 or Marshall Community Center at 360-487-7100.

Typically, no adults are allowed at Teen Late Nights, with the exception of four temporary Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department employees who make sure, as a grown-up might say, there's no funny business.

But on Nov. 9, about a half-dozen adults were able to survey the scene. They included community members who brought the program back after it fell victim to city budget cuts in February, and one person in particular appreciative of the revival.

"I'd rather see kids on the basketball court than out on the streets," said interim Vancouver Police Chief Chris Sutter. "It gives kids a positive outlet, they are safe and it's a great deterrent to juvenile crime."

That's not to say that if the kids weren't playing basketball they'd be committing crimes, but any program — sports or music or drama — that keeps kids engaged is good for the community, Sutter said.

Kaylee Wiita, chairwoman of the board of directors of the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, said she was impressed with the turnout. She and others from the foundation, which donated $25,000 to bring back Teen Late Nights for the 2012-13 school year, came to Marshall Center on Nov. 9 after checking out Teen Late Nights at the Firstenburg Community Center in east Vancouver.

While most of the teenagers at Marshall were from nearby Hudson's Bay High School or Fort Vancouver High School, the kids at Firstenburg were primarily middle-school students from Cascade or Wy'east.

Students ages 11 to 18 can attend the free program, which runs 8 to 11 p.m. Fridays at Marshall and Firstenburg.

Students must show a school ID card or be signed in by a parent.

Attendees are not allowed to leave and return, a policy meant to ward off attempts by students to fake a parent into believing they were at the center the whole time.

Wiita recalled her teenage years in Wyoming, when she and her friends would cruise and hang out in parking lots, unless someone's parents were out of town.

"You have to have a place for kids to go Friday nights," Wiita said.

Parks cuts

Last week, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed property tax levy to create a dedicated funding stream for parks and recreation.

Since 2008, the number of full-time employees at the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department has been cut in half. Parks funding accounts for approximately 6 percent of the city's general fund, down from 10 to 11 percent. At the start of this year, the department announced a $1.2 million shortfall. Teen Late Nights was one of several programs that don't recover the money it costs to provide them, and was cut.

The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington took notice.

Since 2009, the foundation has consistently funded parks and recreation programs, notably scholarships for children from low-income families so they can attend day camps without needing to pay fees.

In the spring, the nonprofit's board of directors awarded $15,000 for the Everybody Plays Scholarship Program and $5,000 for art programs and supplies. The money was awarded to the Parks Foundation of Clark County, which distributes donations to meet local parks and recreation needs.

Cheri Martin, executive director of the Parks Foundation, said she'd asked for the money for Everybody Plays and art programs but was surprised when members of the Community Foundation asked her and Dave Perlick, business manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, "What else can we help you with?"

Perlick said the No. 1 priority was the Summer Sensory Camp, the only local program of its kind for children with autism, but a dozen mothers rallied and raised more than $27,000 in a month to save the camp for at least another season.

With the Sensory Camp saved, Teen Late Nights rose to the top of priorities, Perlick said. After-school programs that had been axed cost more money than Teen Late Nights because they operate more days and require more employees.

The Teen Late Nights program has been running at Marshall about 15 years.

It restarted in October, and the money from the Community Foundation will pay for it through May. Attendance starts to drop at the end of the school year anyway, Perlick said.

The city mostly relies on word of mouth to advertise, and Perlick hopes attendance will increase.

Candace Young, a Community Foundation board member, said board members were excited to be able to pay for Teen Late Nights. Usually the board fulfills only specific grant requests, but this time members decided to offer the money because they were so concerned about how many parks programs had been cut. Socializing and playing games in a safe environment trumps even sitting at home watching television, Young said.

Wiita said she'd love for more people in the community to get a look at Teen Late Nights.

"I think there would be an outpouring of support," she said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.