KAMIAH — Six years ago, downtown Kamiah didn’t have much life on the streets. In this town of 1,000-plus on the banks of the Clearwater River “nothing for young people to do” was a common complaint.
These days, a thriving teen center in the heart of downtown gives teenagers a place to land after school and on weekends. Pool and pingpong tables, foosball, games, books and a large-screen TV provide entertainment. Homework help and tutoring are available, as well as life skills classes, service projects and crafts for younger kids. It’s also a launch point for free or low-cost adventure and cultural trips in the region.
“The teen center has brought life and individuality to downtown Kamiah,” said Daisy Bower, president of the Youth Advisory Board that helps run the center.
It began with $75
The Kamiah Teen Center began with the formation of the Upriver Youth Leadership Council in 2017, with a mission of “empowering our youth to create a healthy, drug-free community.” Sharlene Johnson, UYLC’s first and only executive director, remembers a core group of people sitting around a table with an idea. They pooled their money for the $75 needed to register with the state as a nonprofit corporation, beginning the organization’s journey.
Johnson’s grant-writing has brought in more than $7 million for UYLC programs, including the teen center. A five-year Drug Free Communities grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided an early major funding source. The CDC recently approved an additional five years at $125,000 per year.
In addition to grants and donations, fundraisers and volunteers have kept the organization going and growing with new programs and activities each year. The recent addition of a commercial kitchen, a community garden and a greenhouse is helping teach life skills, as well as feed the kids at the center.
Beginning with only volunteers, UYLC now employs 35 full- or part-time staff. It occupies four buildings: three in Kamiah and one in Kooskia, where a second teen center opened in the spring.
Youth Advisory Board teens serve as UYLC part-time staff, strategizing ideas for activities, events and facilities. When the first group of advisory board kids identified a teen center as their highest priority, Johnson challenged them to raise $10,000 before opening the center. The advisory board also committed to raise enough money to pay half the rent each month, a goal it continues to meet.
A safe place for teens
Two of the initial Youth Advisory Board members, Jace Sams and Jace Johnson, remember the hard work and fundraising over several years.
“The opening of the teen center was important to me as a YAB member because it was the materializing of a dream,” Sams said.
Johnson thought it took the organization to the next level. “It felt like opening the teen center finally legitimized us as an organization,” he said. “We were no longer just a group of kids who threw events; we became a sanctuary for local youth.”
Terren Acheson-Taylor, a Youth Advisory Board graduate, joined the board after the teen center opened.
“Safe spot, safe kids, some weight off the parents’ shoulders: It’s a win for everyone involved,” Acheson-Taylor said.
Lewis County Sheriff Jason Davis supports UYLC’s mission, serving as a board member.
“The most important thing is that UYLC teaches our children how to resist and stay away from substances that could cause bad, life-changing complications for them, including alcohol, drugs and vapes,” Davis said.
Amber Sanderson, UYLC’s Family Resource and Recovery Program coordinator, said she lacked structure and family support as a child and went down the wrong path in life.
“UYLC gives youth a chance to make different choices,” Sanderson said. “We provide structure and guidance while offering activities, experience and home-cooked meals.”
Bower, the board’s president, said the teen center “is a safe place for kids to go if they don’t have a safe place at home.”
Advisory board member Autumn Korponay said the center gives parents a drug-free, smoke-free place for their kids and the security that their kids aren’t surrounded by negative influences and bad choices.
Kamiah City Councilor Scott Moffett said he appreciates the safety net the teen center provides, including “basic life necessities” for young people who need them.
“Every town needs a safe space for our youth to hang out and feel accepted,” Lara Smith said.
A mother of four girls and former teen center staff member, Smith recalled a Kamiah Teen Center New Year’s Eve party when her daughter’s Snapchats lit up with the locations of friends.
“It (the teen center) was the place to be,” Smith said.
With a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, there weren’t many kids left to attend other parties.
“The kids were safe that night,” she said.
“It’s giving the kids a place to go, giving them pride in their community,” Sheriff Davis said. “Because they invest in their community, they want to protect their investment. UYLC teaches that aspect of pride.”
Giving teens more to do
Second-term Kamiah Mayor Betty Heater said UYLC’s efforts to support young people align with her own, including her work with community partners to raise nearly $600,000 for the reconstruction of the town’s swimming pool, scheduled to open in the spring.
“I’ve never been happier that we have a teen center,” Heater said. “It’s a huge blessing to our community.”
When Sams, one of the initial Youth Advisory Board members, pitched the idea of building a skate park on city-owned land, the city council approved the request. Sams, a 2021 Kamiah High School graduate, worked on planning and fundraising for the skate park as his senior project, and it is currently under construction, providing another outdoor activity for youth.
With the teen center as a base, the Upriver Youth Leadership Council provides bus trips throughout the year, to a trampoline park, skiing, camping, fishing, movies, amusement parks, water parks, an escape room, whitewater rafting, kayaking, Broadway plays — almost anything the Youth Advisory Board kids identify.
Hannah Hale, a 2022 graduate of Clearwater Valley High School in Kooskia, saw her first two Broadway shows — “Cats” and “Hamilton” — in Spokane, thanks to UYLC.
The council provided tickets, a chartered bus and lunch, without which the trip would have been out of reach for Hale and her sister, and many other teens and families.
“ ‘Cats’ was amazing — the best experience I've ever had,” Hale said. “So cool, seeing it in person.”
Giving back to the community
It’s not just fun and games. Youth Advisory Board teens are active in community service, helping senior citizens by delivering meals, doing yard cleanup and moving furniture. They pick up trash and clean graffiti around town, and they work with adults to organize, set up, serve food and clean up for many community events, including the Easter egg hunt, Kamiah Barbecue Days and the Olde Fashioned Christmas event.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the teens put together take-home activities kits and meal kits for families.They grocery-shopped for people at home and dropped off care packages to sick people.
“The community service aspect of teen programs teaches a good work ethic,” Councilor Moffett said. “The benefits to the teens are that service to others increases self-esteem and resilience as well as leadership, dependability, decision-making and communication skills.”
Bower, the Youth Advisory Board president, and members Caleb Ekeh, Ragen Farris, Leila Guffey and Korponay, weighed in on the benefits of the teen center and board as they helped with a recent community fundraiser.
Guffey said planning and helping with community events is a great way to prepare for the future, learning people skills, public speaking and delegation of responsibilities. And the community benefits from a younger perspective when kids contribute to events, Korponay said.
“It’s hard for older people to put together events good for kids,” she said.
Having younger people involved helps attract other young people to join in, too, Farris said.
In addition to the Youth Advisory Board’s message of staying alcohol and drug free, the center includes resources for help, Farris said, adding she believes the teen center encourages safer lifestyles sometimes not taught at home.
“It’s more cool to be drug- and alcohol-free,” Bower said.
Ekeh echoed her sentiments.
“You want to do what your friends are doing,” he said. “If they are alcohol- and drug-free, it’s easier for you.”
He also appreciates the chance to meet new friends and get to know people in the community, at the center or at events where he serves, Ekeh said.
Sharlene Johnson, the Upriver Youth Leadership Council’s executive director, said she is amazed by the outpouring of support UYLC receives from the community.
People want to help, she said, but they don’t always know how. The teen center provides a focus for volunteering and donating to support young people.
Last year, UYLC members told the community they had adopted five families at the holidays, and enough supplies showed up for 10 families.
“It’s endless. No matter what we need, someone shows up with it, whether it is financial or physical labor,” Johnson said. “Our exponential growth has exceeded anything I had ever imagined. It is hard to believe everything we have accomplished in five years.”
More information about UYLC’s programs is at upriveryouth.org and the Upriver Youth Leadership Council page on Facebook.
Staaf (she/her) writes from her home in the hills east of Harpster. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.