Investing in At-Risk Youth

Contributing to the United Way Community Impact Fund helps support a broad spectrum of programs in Whatcom County. Education, Income, and Health are the building blocks for a good quality of life and supporting youth and families in these areas is a priority. In support of education, United Way of Whatcom County supports a variety of different programs that help youth achieve their potential in order for them to be productive and engaged young adults. After-school mentoring programs for at-risk youth that develop strengths and provide counseling to this important demographic are extremely vital to the community’s growth as a whole.
The Northwest Youth Services (NWYS) Transitional Living program provides youth that are homeless with the tools to develop self-sufficiency by acquiring skills and the ability to earn income, as well as a plan to exit into stable housing afterwards. Every year 40 youth ages 16-24 are enrolled and housed for up to 18 months as well as provided with additional support services as part of a comprehensive plan to keep them off the streets. NWYS collaborates with at-risk, runaway and homeless youth to foster self-reliance providing an important service to Whatcom County.
NWYS has a large emphasis on education, making one of the primary goals of every program that the youth are either in school or working towards their GED. This is very important for the teenagers to become self-sufficient contributing adults. By communicating each person’s value in the community, NWYS encourages them to work towards meeting goals to become a balanced productive asset to the community.
Riannon Bardsley, Executive Director of NWYS, remembers a young woman who was eight months pregnant and living under a bridge. She had been unsuccessful multiple times in finding housing in Bellingham and had settled into the street life. After seeking help from Northwest Youth Services, she will be bringing her newborn baby into an apartment this spring instead of on the streets.  
Eighty-eight percent of the youth involved in their mental health case management program show an increase in earning potential, as well as 94 percent of youth remaining in stable housing after participating in their programs.  Northwest Youth Services is making a huge difference. United Way funds are critical to many of the programs NWYS provides for at-risk youth, providing backing for essential services that federal funding cannot cover. The teen court program specifically is funded 100 percent by local sources and relies on United Way to support wrap around services for young offenders.
GRADS is another program that is funded through your generous donations to the Community Impact Fund at United Way of Whatcom County. Through the Bellingham Public School system GRADS provides expecting mothers and teen mothers with the tools to graduate high school as well as the tools to be a good parent. The teachers involved in GRADS also make it a top priority to help the girls think about their futures, with detailed after graduation plans that usually involve some sort of post education or training program. This allows mothers to provide a better life for their child and themselves. Instructed to keep journals of pre-pregnancy health and feelings as well as the child’s overall health after birth, the girls are mentored by teachers who are already mothers. These journals are used in doctors’ visits as well as specific classes designed to teach the girls about motherhood and how to take care of a growing child.
The GRADS program, with help from United Way's Community Impact Fund, has developed a supportive network to make sure graduation is a priority as well as specific life goals for a better quality of life. If high school dropout rates were cut in half it would generate nearly $45 billion in new tax revenue. The GRADS program is working to keep pregnant teens out of the dropout statistic and help them gain personal success while being competent mothers.
The YMCA is another agency that United Way supports through donations to the Community Impact Fund. With after school programs provided to children of all ages as well as community activities available at discounted rates for families that are low income, the Whatcom YMCA goes the extra mile for youth. With sports teams, clubs, and after school care the YMCA creates a comfortable place for any child to find a community.
The Y adventure school program is one of the many opportunities provided by the YMCA for school age children. Serving grades six through eight, teachers and counselors nominate students to participate in the three-day long free camp. The kids experience rope course activities, snowshoeing, as well as indoor rock climbing, all while building leadership and teamwork skills to improve their development. The groups are selected to have a mixture of personality types to create the best collaborative group possible. Each child works on different aspects of their development and takes a different lesson away from the program.
The main focus of the Y adventure school is to help middle school students build positive connections with peers and adults; this creates a strong foundation to improve test scores and a passion for learning. Beth Schille, a counselor at Whatcom Middle School, says she has seen great improvements in many students who have participated in the program, outcomes range from being more outgoing and making a friend, to taking leadership roles during lessons. Developing trust and confidence are very important to a healthy learning environment, ropes courses and team building activities leaders guide the children through challenges to develop these skills.
Rob Knowles, teen adventure director at YMCA, believes one of the most important factors that make the Y adventure school such a success is the targeted age group. Middle school students ae going through a transition period; Rob believes the difference between prevention and rehabilitation is catching at-risk-youth before they enter high school. With Whatcom County’s high school dropout rate between 25-30 percent, it is important to help kids build strong relationships and connections at school before they feel lost.
One comment that a student wrote about the program was, “I believe in myself now” and “I now know I am a natural leader,” these uplifting statements are directly related to the copious amounts of effort the staff at the YMCA dedicate to each student. One of the teachers who participated also observed “the students have grown in their self-confidence and communication skills,” which then transfers to their performance in the classroom.
Through donations to the Community Impact Fund 4,400+ teens received positive mentoring and the tools to avoid delinquent behavior, graduate high school, and become responsible, self-sufficient adults.  Contributions to our Community Impact Fund make these programs and many other programs possible.

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