Youth First needs community support to survive

Youth First has been providing kids in Andover, Anoka and Ramsey with a safe place to be, adults to connect with and help with improving academically for the last 19 years. But that could all be endangered.

 Alison Feigh, program coordinator for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center/National Child Protection Training Center is the guest speaker at the May 17 Mayors' Breakfast.
Alison Feigh, program coordinator for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center/National Child Protection Training Center is the guest speaker at the May 17 Mayors’ Breakfast.

The May 17 Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast, featuring Alison Feigh, program coordinator for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center/National Child Protection Training Center as guest speaker, could be the deciding factor in the survival of the program.

In the past, the Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast has been about raising awareness of the program and informing the community, said Youth First Boardmember Jim Dickinson, who also serves on the finance committee.

That has now shifted because it is more important to raise funds this year, he said.

The success of the breakfast will have a significant role in the board’s determination on Youth First’s future, Dickinson said.

The breakfast will show the board if the community really values the organization and if it is willing to support it financially, he said.

“We are hitting a crucible and we have to make a decision on whether the program can continue … including dissolving the organization,” Dickinson said

Historically, the breakfast event has raised $7,000 annually, but Dickinson estimates the event will need to raise a minimum of $15,000 to $20,000 to keep the Youth First programs as they exist and chip away at the $50,000 debt it has with Anoka County.

The county has been providing cash flow for Youth First’s two full-time employees’ payroll and for the last four years, the organization has carried a balance of $50,000, Dickinson said.

While Youth First has not gone deeper in debt, it has not made headway in paying off that debt, he said.

The board continues to look for additional resources and it has been able to pay for operational costs, Dickinson said.

In 2012, the Youth First budget was $147,000, this year it is $129,000, according to Dickinson.

The board will be meeting in June or July to discuss how or if Youth First should move forward, he said.

“It is really getting to be a tough point,” Dickinson said.

The programs relies on donations, partner contributions from Andover, Anoka and Ramsey as well as Anoka County.

The cities are now providing $10,000 each annually and the county provides $7,500 yearly for the program in addition to cash flow, Dickinson said.

From the Anoka-Hennepin School District, Youth First receives a location for its school-based programs, transportation for students to the Youth First Ramsey site and snacks for the students participating in the after-school program, he said.

At one time, the district had a coordinator that worked for the program, but that was years ago, Dickinson said.

Youth First has school programs at Anoka High School and Oak View Middle School as well as at neighborhood programs in Anoka and Ramsey, according to Dickinson.

Youth First cannot continue doing it this way and it could have to pull back services at the schools, he said.

“It will be a decision the board will have to make,” Dickinson said.

School programs

In addition to providing kids a caring adult to connect to and a safe place to be at sites in Anoka and in Ramsey, Youth First staff members Heidi Geiss and Kelly Thorsten are working in the schools.

At the request of the Anoka High School administration, Youth First expanded its role at the school this year to include an after-school program, Geiss said.

For the last three years, Geiss has been working with the high school’s English as a Second Language (ESL) students, which was paid for through a children and families services grant from Anoka County.

Geiss spent her time helping the ESL students with class work, but it was clear the students needed help with issues at home and connections to family resources, she said.

This year, Geiss is working in the regular classrooms, checking in with select kids to see how they are doing socially and academically.

She is working with two separate classes and with about 16 kids, she said.

Geiss is connecting the students with other resources to help them with food, shelter, clothes and studying for tests.

“I am there to give the extra help they need from basic needs to the resources they need to be successful here,” Geiss said.

Geiss works with the school counselors to get the ESL kids connected with the program.

“We also have our after-school programs at all three sites. Our after-school programs includes help with homework and social support,” Geiss said.

During the Monday afternoon program at Anoka High School, which started this year, Geiss works with 10-25 kids.

The school provides kids with laptops for homework and a place to hang out after school, while Youth First works with the students that come to the program, Geiss said.

Thorsten works with students at Oak View Middle School after school twice a week.

The rest of the time, “we help kids look for/apply and interview for jobs, help with filling out forms, touring and applying for college, financial aid and scholarships,” Geiss said.

They also “help them set up and transport youth to medical and dental appointments, advocate for them in court, help find/supply them with basic needs like food, personal hygiene and clothes,” she said.

“We also have onsite dental clinics with Ronald McDonald mobile dental quarterly. We play basketball at the YMCA in Andover on Sundays and we host movie nights at the Ramsey site on weekends. Essentially we help kids by providing the support they need to be successful in school and in life.”

In total, the program serves about 300 kids per year, that is an unduplicated combined after school and summer program number, according to Geiss

19th annual Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast fund-raiser

Date: Friday May 17, 7:15 a.m.

Location: The Fountains of Ramsey

Program: Guest speaker Alison Feigh, program coordinator for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center/National Child Protection Training Center. Feigh is an expert on the topic of child and teen safety and has appeared on CNN, Fox News and local news outlets talking about her non-fear-based personal safety messages. As a classmate of Jacob Wetterling, Feigh learned early on how important it is to protect children and youth from exploitation.

Cost: Tickets are $25/each or a table of eight for $190.

Call 763-421-8530 for ticket information. Not able to attend the breakfast, but want to support Youth First? Monetary donations can be made by mailing a check directly to Youth First at 6701 Highway 10 N.W., Ramsey MN  55303. Youth First is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax deductible.

Tammy Sakry is at [email protected]