Six years ago, downtown Kamiah didn’t have much street life. In this town of more than 1,000 people on the banks of the Clearwater River, “nothing to do for young people” was a common complaint.
Today, a thriving teen center in the heart of downtown provides teenagers with a place to hang out after school and on weekends. Pool and ping pong tables, table football, games, books and a big screen TV will keep you entertained. Homework help and tutoring are available, as well as life skills classes, service projects, and crafts for younger children. It is also a starting 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, chair of the youth advisory board that helps run the center.
It started with $75
The Kamiah Teen Center began with the formation of the Upriver Youth Leadership Council in 2017, with a mission to “empower 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, thus 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 a major first source of funding. The CDC recently approved an additional five years at $125,000 per year.
In addition to grants and donations, fundraisers and volunteers have allowed the organization to continue and grow with new programs and activities each year. The recent addition of a commercial kitchen, community garden and greenhouse helps teach life skills and feed the children at the center.
Starting out with just volunteers, UYLC now employs 35 full-time or part-time staff. It occupies four buildings: three in Kamiah and one in Kooskia, where a second teen center opened in the spring.
Teens on the Youth Advisory Council are part-time staff at UYLC, brainstorming ideas for activities, events and facilities. When the first group of children on the advisory board identified a teen center as their highest priority, Johnson challenged them to raise $10,000 before opening the center. The advisory board has also pledged to raise enough money to pay half the rent each month, a goal it continues to achieve.
A safe place for teenagers
Two of the original members of the Youth Advisory Council, Jace Sams and Jace Johnson, remember the hard work and fundraising for several years.
“Opening the teen center was important to me as a member of YAB because it was the realization of a dream,” Sams said.
Johnson thought it took the organization to the next level. “It felt like the opening of the teen center finally legitimized us as an organization,” he said. “We weren’t just a bunch of kids organizing events anymore; we have become a sanctuary for local youth.
Terren Acheson-Taylor, a Youth Advisory Council graduate, joined the board after the teen center opened.
“Safe place, safe children, a little weight on the parents’ shoulders: this is a win for everyone involved,” Acheson-Taylor said.
Lewis County Sheriff Jason Davis supports UYLC’s mission as a member of the Board of Directors.
“The most important thing is that UYLC teaches our children how to resist and stay away from substances that could cause them bad life-altering complications, including alcohol, drugs and vapes,” Davis said.
Amber Sanderson, UYLC’s Family Resource and Recovery Program Coordinator, said she lacked family structure and support as a child and took the wrong path in life.
“UYLC gives young people a chance to make different choices,” Sanderson said. “We provide structure and guidance while providing activities, experience, and home-cooked meals.”
Bower, chairman of the board, said the teen center “is a safe place for kids to go if they don’t have a safe place at home.”
Autumn Korponay, a member of the advisory board, said the center provides parents with a drug-free and smoke-free place for their children and the safety that their children are not surrounded by negative influences and bad choices.
Kamiah Councilman Scott Moffett said he appreciates the safety net provided by the teen center, including “basic life necessities” for young people who need them.
“Every city needs a safe space for our young people to come out and feel accepted,” said Lara Smith.
A mother of four and former teen center staff member, Smith recalled a New Year’s Eve party at the Kamiah Teen Center when her daughter’s Snapchats lit up with friends’ locations.
“It was (the teen center) the place to be,” Smith said.
With crowds neck and neck, there weren’t many kids left to attend any more parties.
“The kids were safe that night,” she said.
“It gives the kids a place to go, gives them pride in their community,” Sheriff Davis said. “Because they invest in their community, they want to protect their investment. UYLC teaches this aspect of pride.
Giving more work to teenagers
Kamiah Mayor Betty Heater said UYLC’s efforts to support youth align with her own, including her work with community partners to raise nearly $600,000 for the reconstruction of the the city, which is scheduled to open in the spring.
“I’ve never been happier that we have a teen center,” Heater said. “It’s a huge blessing for our community.”
When Sams, an early member of the Youth Advisory Council, pitched the idea of building a skate park on city-owned land, the city council approved the request. Sams, who graduated from Kamiah High School in 2021, worked on planning and fundraising for the skate park as a senior project, and it is currently under construction, providing another outdoor activity for youngsters.
With the teen center as its base, the Upriver Youth Leadership Council offers year-round bus trips, to a trampoline park, skiing, camping, fishing, movies, amusement parks , water parks, escape room, white water rafting, kayaking, Broadway plays. – almost everything the young people of the Youth Advisory Council 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 charter bus and lunch, without which the trip would have been out of reach for Hale and her sister, as well as many other teenagers and families.
“‘Cats’ was amazing – the best experience I’ve ever had,” said Hale. “So cool, seeing it in person.”
Give back to the community
It’s not just fun and games. Youth Advisory Council teens are active in community service, helping seniors by delivering meals, cleaning the yard, and moving furniture. They pick up trash and clean up graffiti all over town, and they work with adults to organize, set up, serve food and clean up for many community events, including Easter Egg Hunts, Days of the Kamiah barbecue and the old-fashioned Christmas event.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, teens set up take-out activity kits and meal kits for families. They picked up groceries for people at home and dropped off care packages for sick people.
“The community service aspect of teen programs teaches a good work ethic,” Councilor Moffett said. “The benefits for teens are that service to others increases self-esteem and resilience as well as leadership, reliability, decision-making and communication skills.”
Bower, the president of the Youth Advisory Council, and members Caleb Ekeh, Ragen Farris, Leila Guffey and Korponay, weighed in on the benefits of the teen center and council as they helped out with a recent community fundraiser.
Guffey said planning and helping out with community events is a great way to prepare for the future, learn interpersonal skills, public speaking and delegate responsibilities. And the community benefits from a younger perspective when children contribute to events, Korponay said.
“It is difficult for older people to organize interesting events for children,” she said.
Youth participation also helps attract other young people, Farris said.
In addition to the Youth Advisory Council’s message to stay alcohol and drug free, the center includes resources for help, Farris said, adding that she believes the teen center encourages safer lifestyles that are sometimes not not taught at home.
“It’s cooler to be drug and alcohol free,” Bower said.
Ekeh echoed his sentiments.
“You want to do what your friends are doing,” he said. “If they’re 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, whether at the center or at events where he serves, Ekeh said.
Sharlene Johnson, executive director of the Upriver Youth Leadership Council, said she was amazed at the outpouring of support UYLC is receiving from the community.
People want to help, she says, but they don’t always know how. The teen center emphasizes volunteerism and donations to support young people.
Last year, UYLC members told the community that they adopted five families over the holidays, and enough supplies showed up for 10 families.
“It’s endless. Whatever we need, someone shows up with it, whether it’s financial or physical work,” Johnson said. “Our exponential growth has exceeded anything I had imagined. It’s hard to believe how much we’ve accomplished in five years.
For more information on UYLC programs, visit upriveryouth.org and the Upriver Youth Leadership Council Facebook page.