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Ketchikan Youth Initiatives: For Youth, By Youth (with Adult Mentors)

By Geoff Kirsch

For Ketchikan Youth Initiatives (KYI), you might say its expansion came before its expansion.

“When we first started ten years ago, we thought we were just opening a paintball park,” says KYI Administrator Bobbie McCreary.

“The original goal was to provide one activity for Ketchikan’s youth,” she explains. “But once we began working with young people, we kept seeing more need—job skills, life skills, a safe place to turn for support—so we kept growing and growing.”

Today, KYI and its entirely volunteer staff—many of them youths, themselves—run the Hot Shots Paintball Field and the Shane Howard White Skateboard Park, as well as a host of education, volunteer, life skills and other programs geared toward connecting with Ketchikan’s youth. At any given time KYI coordinates some 20 volunteers, a number exceeding 40 during special events, like those scheduled throughout the Fourth of July weekend.

Believe it or not, all the administration takes place out of McCreary’s home office, the programming in whatever space she can find around town. That is, until KYI moves into its future home, the Youth Community Center building, which has been under slow, steady renovation since it was donated by the City in 2010. In addition to support KYI from volunteers and youths, the project has received multiple grants, including a recent $98,000 “top off” grant from the Rasmuson Foundation.

“It’s a challenge, not having our building yet,” McCreary says of the still-uncertain timetable for completion. But in true Southeast Alaska style, both she and KYI seem determined to make the most of the situation looking forward to the future. 

“Silver lining: it forces us to think creatively about programming and collaborating with other local organizations,” McCreary says.

Prime example: KIY’s recent three-part workshop “Hungry for Health,” teaching young adults how to stretch their food dollar while also eating more nutritiously. Supported by a United Way of Southeast Alaska Community Impact Grant, the series features classes such as “Cheap Eats,” facilitated by a Ketchikan couponing expert, “Green Not Gross,” developed by a hospital dietician and “Cooking for Dummies,” in which chefs presented hands-on culinary.

“That seems to be a very effective way to connect—food and cooking,” says McCreary, illustrating an approach marked by flexibility, positivity and an emphasis on reaching youth effectively. “It’s all about teaching good life skills to young adults and their families.”

Building on the success of Hungry for Health, KYI began ‘Teens Cooking for Teens,” a similar program targeted at a younger age group.

“And now we realize we will need a much bigger kitchen, so we’ve adjusted the design of the Youth Community Center,” McCreary says. “See? Sometimes there’s a reason things take a little longer...”

Ketchikan Youth Initiatives was originally established in 2005 in response to the needs of at-risk youth; specifically, it grew out of a community meeting stemming from the prescription drug-related deaths of two young men.   

“Youth face challenges particular to Ketchikan,” says McCreary. “It’s a small community confined to an island. That in itself attracts some people to trouble.”

To combat that, KYI provides what it calls “Healthy Alternative Activities” (e.g. paintball; skateboarding; cooking).

Over time, the organization also began to emphasize community service and skills programming for young adults ages 14-24.

KYI’s Hot Shots Paintball Field illustrates this evolution perfectly. As KYI’s first project, in 2006 a group of high school students opened a paintball course. Over the past ten years, it’s grown into a successful small business, run by an all-volunteer, all-youth staff, that works for the experience (plus a little free paintball play—and a bonus at the end of the season depending on the program’s net revenues).

Again led by local youth—and emboldened by the paintball park’s success—in 2013, KYI opened a brand-new state-of-the art concrete skate park on land donated by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough and with a generous gift by the White family in memory of their grandson. Shane Howard White Skate Park quickly became a highly popular recreation spot, open 24/7 to skateboarders, inline skaters and scooters. 

“We’re about to put a similar youth leadership team in place at the skatepark,” says McCreary; the team will also support community fundraising efforts to “raise the roof.”

“It does rain in Ketchikan from time to time,” she says. “Like 14 feet per year on average. We definitely need a roof over the skatepark.”

KYI is a shining example of a youth-directed, adult-mentored organization. In addition to its volunteers, four youths age 14-17 also serve as board members, not only playing an instrumental role in planning but also offering the perspective of the exact demographic KYI hopes to reach.

“Because we started with youth, we understand the value of youth input,” McCreary says. “Youth input keeps us on track.”

While volunteers remain the lifeblood of Ketchikan Youth Initiatives, like many non-profits throughout Southeast Alaska funding continues to be a limiting factor, especially for an organization focused on programming. KYI’s greatest need is an ongoing source of donor funding to build its capacity, beginning with paid staff.

“The United Way certainly helps with these efforts, not only with Community Impact Grants but also the SHARE program,” says McCreary, who would love to see an even greater United Way of Southeast Alaska presence in Ketchikan, specifically an expanded workplace giving campaign.

Half-finished headquarters notwithstanding, Ketchikan Youth Initiatives remains true to its original aim.

“We’re always looking to see where service is needed,” McCreary says.

To learn more about United Way and its partner agencies, visit www.unitedwayseak.org. To learn more about Ketchikan Youth Initiatives or donate to its operations or building fund visit www.kyiyouth.org