Jennifer Mclaughlin, a case manager and skills trainer at YAS, cleans up after the weekly cooking night. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

The Youth Advocates of Sitka provide a range of mental health services to young people. They say their services are aimed at a large, and often hidden, need on the island. This spring, the organization moved into a newly renovated building on the Sheldon Jackson campus, and KCAW’s Rachel Waldholz visited to bring us this report.

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It’s cooking night at the Family Resource Center, on the Sheldon Jackson Campus. Five kids are putting together a stirfry dinner, coaxed along by five staff members. In between shifts at the stove, kids retreat to the center’s couches, where several iPads wait.

Cooking night is one of the many programs offered by the Youth Advocates of Sitka. The nonprofit was founded in 1975 to provide mental health services to the island’s young people, but it has kept a relatively low profile, and after 37 years, many Sitkans don’t know much about it.

If they do, it’s often through the organization’s presence in schools. But the organization has a much broader mission. It seeks to be a resource for kids coping with everything from trauma to trouble at school, from a death in the family to homelessness.

“We’re here to provide support to the youth,” said Annette Becker, the executive director. “So that they can function successfully, so that they can stay in their homes, they can stay in the community, so that they don’t have to transition out of the community.”

In March, the organization moved into the newly renovated Armstrong Building, on the Sheldon Jackson Campus. The building houses three separate programs: there’s the community mental health program, which offers kids individual and family therapy and fields staff in the schools. There’s a therapeutic foster care program. And there’s a transitional living program for homelss youth. YAS also runs the Hanson House, a residential treatment center for kids dealing with emotional and behavioral issues.

“The great thing about YAS is we do have really wraparound services,” said Jennifer Mclaughlin, a case manager and skills trainer at YAS. “We might get a client when they’re in 5th grade, in community mental health, and then as they get older, they may need more help, and go into say the Hanson House, and then when they complete that, they may go into therapeutic foster care or the transitional living program, so we can support them through all of their childhood and teenage years.”

“I think that it provides a kind of support for kids,” Mclaughlin said. “If you don’t get healthy boundaries and good relationships with adults in your personal life, it’s really life changing for kids to be able to form those kinds of relationships in these kind of settings, and learn to trust adults.”

Kalina, 21, has been in the Transitional Living Program since December. The program targets young people between 16 and 21, who, for whatever reason, can’t live at home.

“I love Jennifer,” Kalina said. “She helps me use the fax machine when I can’t figure it out, and how to fill out forms. She gives me little questions that make me second guess everything that I’m thinking, and it kind of keeps me on my toes, and I didn’t have that before.”

“Part of the reason I joined [the Transitional Living Program] was to gain my independence and get a feel for how it would be to live on my own, and get some help for some things I was dealing with in my personal life,” Kalina said.

The staff at YAS worked with Kalina on budgeting and meal planning, and helped her apply for jobs. She now works full time, and hopes to move into her own place sometime this fall.

Most of the kids at cooking night are residents at the Hanson House, which takes in youth from all over the state who are dealing with everything from substance abuse to violence at home to emotional issues.

One resident came to the Hanson House from Anchorage.

“I kind of had a substance abuse with alcohol,” she said. “I’ve been drinking since I was 15, and I’m 18 now. I felt like I wanted it to come to an end. I was in jail in Anchorage and I decided to come to the Hanson House.”

The house serves kids age 10-18, offering therapy and skills training — cooking night is one piece of that. Kids attend local schools and are part of community programs like the Fine Arts Camp.

“I don’t know, I never thought of a treatment place to be like this,” said the resident. “It’s like a regular home, and you can apply for jobs and stuff, and I just find it really nice to actually be here.”

In the last eighteen months, YAS has worked with over 150 young people in all of its programs. According to its own statistics, about a third of their clients were dealing with substance abuse, over half were experiencing depression and three-quaterts were coping with anxiety. A vast majority had dealt with some major trauma.

For Becker and Clinical Director Libby Stortz, the idea at the heart of the organization’s work is to help kids find different ways to express the emotions they’re coping with.

“They’re all amazing,” said Becker. “They all have great strenghts, and sometimes because their behaviors are challenging for adults or others in the community –”

“It’s hard for people to realize that underneath those challenging behaviors, there’s a terrific kid who’s trying to grow up and do a good job of being a person in the world, and in themselves,” Stortz said.

And at least one 18-year-old resident of the Hanson House said he hoped YAS could help him find a new path.

“I became an uncle yesterday. It puts a weird feel on life. I have to get used to it,” he said. “I’m not really a good role model as of now, but I’m getting there.”