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A year ago things looked dire, with all funds exhausted and no viable means to continue operations of a youth center that serves as a safe, welcoming place for kids in the hours between school’s final bell and parents arriving home from work.

The Integral Youth Services (IYS) Youth Center, located adjacent to Mills Elementary School in Klamath Falls, serves as the only option for kids to be supervised after school.

It’s free to attend; the youth center offers free meals (7,800 USDA-approved meals last year alone), activities, homework help, arts and crafts and more in a positive and friendly setting. Hours are expanded during the summers to accommodate families when school is out of session.

One of six different programs operated by IYS, the youth center opened in 2002 and is the lone branch of IYS operations without its own dedicated source of funding. After several years where supplemental funding fueled its operations, last year there was simply nothing more to give, and it was announced that the center would be closing.

A fervor of community spirit rallied many to the cause to save the youth center, from kids collecting spare change to garage sales to businesses offering matching fund drives. The effort worked, with approximately $120,000 raised to cover annual operating costs to keep the center open.

“Last year, was a hard year, we all knew that,” said Larry Zeilstra, interim executive director of IYS. “The youth center exemplified that we were having a hard time. We have worked on how we do things and where money goes; we have trimmed and are trying innovative ideas to get the costs down.”

Consistent funding source needed

Fast forward a year and the youth center is still open, still as relevant as ever in providing supervised activities for kids, and still in need of consistent community-driven funding to remain open. Through streamlining of operations a new goal has been set — raise $90,000 within the next six months for what will be an annual drive going forward to facilitate operations.

The annual campaign was launched last weekend. Among its supporters is the Klamath Falls Ross: Dress For Less store, which now through Feb. 24 will match every dollar donated at the store for the IYS Youth Center and the Boys & Girls Club.

For Ross store manager Jackie Reyes, the effort is personal, as their son, Elijah, is a frequent visitor to the youth center. Last year, Ross raised $8,445 through a similar campaign, more than double their goal.

Strong community support

This year, the sense of urgency may be gone, but IYS staff still see strong community support with multiple businesses and groups pledging to join the effort. The fundraising campaign replaces the Diamonds in the Rough annual dinner IYS used to organize, as staff found direct fundraising efforts matched with grants is the best way to maximize funds.

For example, the center obtained a grant to help pay for “hot boxes” or hot meals to be served to kids.

Methodical fundraising

This year’s fundraising effort is more methodical, with many lessons learned from last year’s frantic approach and an eye towards long-term longevity.

“There is the same enthusiasm as last year, we worked with five businesses last year and we have that many at least lined up again this year,” said Robyn Pierson, IYS development director.

“Now we are doing monthly sponsor gifts, and we have found that a lot of businesses want to get involved with volunteering. We have developed a partnership with Cascade Health Alliance, Hands and Words Are Not For Hurting, Umpqua Bank and others to develop more enrichment activities that benefit the kids.”

While the center is primarily open after school during the school year, IYS has routinely seen participation numbers dip during the summer months despite expanded hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The feedback received from parents was that the 11 a.m. start time meant that daycare was needed for children by 8 or 9 a.m., so IYS is considering how to expand those hours to a full eight-hour operating day to help parents, while adding meals for both breakfast and lunch.

“When the youth center was going down everybody knew about it,” said Zeilstra. “People were wonderful, they listened, and they responded. Now, I think there’s a better understanding in the community of who IYS is, what we do, and how they can help. All of that came out of last year’s experience.”

Six separate operations

IYS oversees six different youth-oriented programs aimed at helping those who may otherwise slip through the cracks.

Other operations include Exodus House — a youth shelter — and support for independent-living teens. IYS has given up certain programs when other community groups stepped in to take charge or programs launched by IYS became independent such as an alternative school, Youth Rising, Ascending Flow, and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Klamath and Lake counties.

“People either knew about Exodus House, or the youth center, but didn’t know we did all of them,” said Pierson. “Being more aware of that has led to more in-kind donations, clothing donations, housing supplies for independent-living kids, and volunteer projects.”

While difficult to measure exact impact, Zeilstra cautions the community impact that would occur if the youth center was not present. An environment where unsupervised kids had nothing to do would likely lead to an increase in crime, drug use and social issues.

“I haven’t seen too many times that when kids have nothing to do they all only do good things,” added Zeilstra. “That was me growing up too. The things that they can get into when they don’t have anywhere to go aren’t always good.”

While expansion of youth-oriented programs remains a possibility, Zeilstra indicated that primary focus right now is to solidify and stabilize current programs through funding and volunteer efforts.

There are also efforts to increase training for staff to better recognize potential issues, including an upcoming sex trafficking education program that several staff members will attend in Yreka to recognize early warning signs of youth potentially susceptible to the growing problem.

“The world is getting more complicated, and we need to know what to look for and how to take care of it,” said Zeilstra.

Volunteers always needed

In addition to funds, volunteers are being sought to provide activities at the youth center. While a one-off presentation is great, IYS hopes to establish monthly or weekly group activities through volunteers as something that kids can look forward to routinely.

“Kids need stability and continuity, and routine activities shows the kids that they are worth something — that they are worth their time,” said Zeilstra. “It changes the adults interacting with the kids too, those that come in and help — it affects them also.”

Several fundraisers for the IYS Youth Center are being planned in addition to the current Ross: Dress For Less campaign, including a community yard sale at the youth center.

The IYS Youth Center is located at 601 E. Main St. in Klamath Falls. For more information about IYS, the IYS Youth Center and fundraising efforts, visit www.integralyouthservices.org.

email kliedtke@heraldandnews.com @kliedtkeHN

Staff reporter for the Herald and News.