The Sky Valley Youth Coalition is about a lot more than just giving teens a safe place to hang out after school. It’s about making a difference in the community, helping those in need, transcending barriers and changing perceptions.
Officially launched in June of this year, the Sky Valley Youth Coalition – also known as the Make a Difference Squad – is headed up by Volunteers of America Western Washington (VOA) Youth Program Coordinator Ruth Shapovalov. The group is a chapter of the Sky Valley Community Coalition, an organization spearheaded by VOA Sky Valley Services Center Director Calei Vaughn to address community issues including underage drinking and substance use, self-harm, teenage depression, bullying and other issues related to Sultan’s youth.
The youth coalition meets every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons at various locations, where they gather, play games, eat snacks and talk. Additional meetings may take place on other days, based on need. For some members, the coalition has become an integral part of their lives, smoothing out rough patches and helping them cope with adversity, always reminding them that they’re not alone.
The group does not have a permanent meeting location, so its meetings take place at the VOA, Mountainview Christian Fellowship, Crosswater Community Church and out in the community.
Many in the group, including Jaydin Halk, James Blakely, Cheyan Budrow, Ashlynn Steele, Courtney Cunningham and Cheyenne Davey, have immersed themselves in volunteerism, participating in a diverse range of activities aimed at bettering the community. Every Thursday they volunteer at the VOA’s Thriving Threads, a free, youth-oriented clothing bank operated by local business owner Trenda Wolter.
Other volunteer efforts have included Project Main Street and cleanup during Sultan’s Summer Shindig Festival, which earned the group major accolades from Sky Valley Chamber Director Debbie Copple.
They helped Kiss the Sky Books owner Jim Tinney over the summer, performing construction-related tasks and hauling boxes of books. They were a presence at National Night Out, have helped various community members by completing yard work or other household chores, and each week, Sky Valley Youth Coalition volunteers mow the grass at the Sultan Boys & Girls Club.
Their volunteer efforts have moved well-beyond simple chores like folding donated clothes and picking up garbage in local parks, as they have increasingly sought to use their time to solve teen-related problems in the community. They planned and coordinated a suicide prevention forum, which took place near River Park at the Sultan Gazebo. The event was not as well-attended as they would have liked, so they are planning a second event and discussing ways to increase attendance.
The coalition hand-selected suicide prevention as a priority issue because suicide is something that has touched many of their lives.
They have sought to smash stereotypes through challenging outreach efforts meant to drive the message that all teens are not the same. Courtney, Jaydin, Cheyenne and Ashlynn served as a panel of teen experts during a community coalition meeting, where they presented their stories and used creative strategies to engage the audience. They took risks, fearlessly presenting their truths with a rawness and vulnerability that had a profound impact on those in attendance.
For some youth coalition members, the mission to smash stereotypes is more personal. James is eager to disrupt the negative perceptions surrounding his last name, which has been tarnished by his father, who is plagued with addiction issues. He loves that the Sky Valley Youth Coalition gives him the opportunity to showcase who he really is – a person who enjoys serving others.
“I’m not like my dad,” James said. “I’ve always wanted to help other people.”
They volunteer for different reasons. For some, it’s fun. For others, it’s the desire to have a positive impact on the community.
In learning to take care of their community, they are also learning how to take care of each other. They are there for each other in times of in crisis, and are learning how to navigate disagreement in order to get to the other side with relationships intact. It’s had a positive impact on all of them, Ruth said.
“The changes have been unbelievable in these kids,” Ruth said.
In the future, the coalition will work to bolster its message of suicide prevention, and hopes to hold another suicide prevention awareness forum. They also hope to work with other youth coalitions, to help strengthen their efforts as they learn more about how other coalitions operate. One of the coalition’s biggest goals is to locate a permanent home, which would offer permanence and stability. It will need to come in the from of a donation, said Cheyan, as they are a nonprofit group, so they are beginning to lay the groundwork through self-promotion and group advocacy.
“We want a home,” Cheyan said. “We’ve been borrowing places since the coalition was started and we want a home. There are so many empty places just on Main Street.”
One of Ruth’s biggest goals for the group is to provide additional mentorship opportunities for youth coalition members. Adults interested in volunteering their time to provide mentorship opportunities to an excellent group of young people are invited to contact her at the VOA, she said.
The group has started fundraising, with the goal of raising $1,000 by December. Donations are tax-deductible, as the VOA is a federal 501(C)3 organization. To learn more about the Sky Valley Youth Coalition, please contact Ruth Shapovalov at firstname.lastname@example.org.