It might look like a game of Pictionary… or kickball… or Madden NFL. But when kids come to hang out at Youth First in Ramsey, the goals are far bigger than games.
“Youth First is a safe place for kids,” says Executive Director Amanda Sappa.
“Education is a huge part of what we do. [The] ultimate goal is to get kids to and through graduation.”
Youth First Community of Promise is a small non-profit that will serve more than a thousand kids this year through free after school and summer programs. It’s available to all kids, ages 11 to 18 years old, from Andover, Anoka, Ramsey, and now Coon Rapids.
Coon Rapids formerly had a teen center in the Riverwind building, which closed last year. Youth First stepped up in its place for a one-year trial. The program proved so successful at reaching more children that the Coon Rapids city council officially approved a partnership with Youth First in June.
The city council committed $10,000 to Youth First Community of Promise last year for the trial run. The council approved another $20,000 this year and each year moving forward. Those dollars come from the money saved by closing the Riverwind teen center in 2017.
Two members of the city council will have voting authority within the four-city joint powers agreement and the council will evaluate Youth First each year.
Executive Director Sappa sees opportunity for growth.
“Our first year in Coon Rapids was unbelievably successful, in part because we had a full time staff member who was dedicated to Coon Rapids. So she spent half of her time at Coon Rapids Middle School and half of her time at Coon Rapids High School,” she says.
The goal: build friendships with kids who may not know where else to turn.
“If a kid comes to us and they trust us and they say, ‘this is what's going on at home and I need some help,’ then we know who to go to,” explains Sappa.
It starts with meeting kids where they are at – often during the school day – rather than waiting for teens to walk into a youth center. Youth First also provides free bussing from Coon Rapids Middle and High Schools to their building in Ramsey. Then, it’s about having fun and encouraging friendships.
15-year-old Tyler Miller has attended summer programs at Youth First for four years.
“Mainly [I] just like the atmosphere, just because there's a lot of friendly people that go here and just fun things to do here and we have activities,” he says.
Amaree Hopson is in his second summer at Youth First.
“If you're, like, a troubled kid, it's people who are not in trouble, like, help you be a friendly person.”
And when kids leave, they are hopefully headed toward a successful future.
The kids that we work with, it's a huge impact on them,” says Sappa.
“They need us, and it's really important that Youth First continues to be around for these kids and continues to be around for the kids that are coming up behind them.”
Jennifer Anderson reporting