MHA: YES Club is in transition, but here to stay

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NEWARK –The doors to the YES Club have been closed to students this week.

Penny Sitler, executive director of Mental Health America of Licking County, is open about that. The lack of a licensed staff member has forced the clubhouse to be closed temporarily.

She also acknowledges the last few months haven’t been easy at YES Club, with numerous staffing changes and concerns raised by teens, parents and alumni.

But Sitler said she wants the community to know that YES Club isn’t going anywhere. She’s hopeful that the clubhouse will be open again Monday, and students and new staff members will continue to move forward.

“It’s such a valuable resource for our community and we want people to know it’s continuing,” Sitler said.

A program of MHA, YES Club offers a free after school program for middle and high school students in Licking County.

Students participate in service projects, work on homework and spend time together playing games and doing activities. But the program also helps meet students’ basic needs, Sitler said. They get a snack and dinner every day and have access to showers, clothes and school supplies.

Many of the students YES serves are living in poverty and have difficult home lives. The clubs’ staff members often act as a support system, focusing on their mental and emotional needs, past member Melissa Barrett wrote in a Facebook message.

“When I first attended YES, I didn’t say a word, I was super depressed and had super bad anxiety. YES literally helped me turn my whole life around,” Barrett wrote.  “YES is the most phenomenal place for kids and teenagers alike, as long as it’s running properly.”

Months of changes

For several years, students participating in the program interacted with a consistent group of core staff members.

Then in March, activities supervisor Erin Ours left the club after more than eight years.

The club’s longtime director, Vee Hottle, retired in April after 22 years. Program director Amanda Vozzella was offered the position of director but decided in August to accept a job at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Licking and Perry Counties.

That summer, a state grant that provided about two-thirds of YES Club’s funding, came to an end, Sitler said. That grant had allowed the club to expand its staff significantly since 2010.

Its loss forced MHA staff to rethink the club’s budget, including eliminating some jobs through attrition, Stitler said.

After the school year started, several other staff members left the organization.

In late August, MHA announced it had hired a new YES director, Bethanne Leffel-Ployhar, to lead the organization. But she left the position in early November.

Sitler declined to discuss the details of her departure but said the arrangement, “wasn’t a good fit.”

New staff members coming in

YES Club is mandated by the state to have a licensed supervisor on site. With Leffel-Ployhar’s departure, the club didn’t have another staff member to fill that role, Sitler said.

Mental Health and Recovery of Licking and Knox Counties offered to help by sending Clinical Director Todd Feasel to supervise the program for a few days. But that wasn’t a long-term solution, Sitler said.

MHA had already planned to close the club at the beginning for this week for several days of training for new staff members.

Palma Kollar was recently hired as activities manager and Craig Loudermilk was named program manager. Former YES intern Lanie Risbon was hired as a part time activities assistant.

Sitler decided to keep YES Club closed this whole week, while searching for a licensed professional who can contract with MHA.

“Safety is our first priority,” Sitler said. “There is too much liability (for young people) to be here without a licensed person.”

That person will serve as YES’ temporary supervisor until a permanent leader can be found. That search is ongoing, Sitler said.

Loudermilk said he and the rest of the staff members are using this time to clean and organize the clubhouse.

They are looking forward to sharing some new things with the teens, but also understand the importance of preserving important memorabilia and traditions.

“We are not trying to start fresh, we aren’t trying to reinvent YES,” he said. “We are not changing the basic mission. That will never change and we will always be here.”

Concerns from parents, alumni

Landa Dearing attended YES Club from 2011 to 2014.

“If it wasn’t for YES Club I never would have graduated. They were my support system when I didn’t have one,” she said. “I want the kids to have the same experience I had at YES Club.

But over the last few months, she said she started getting concerned with what she was seeing when she visited the clubhouse.

The teens weren’t doing as many service projects and activities. They weren’t respecting the clubhouse or helping out with chores. Many of the new members weren’t being educated about YES Club values, she said.

“All the kids were upset and frustrated with the changes going on,” she said.

As time went on, former members and parents began expressing concerns about the program on social media. The Advocate received several letters from members expressing concerns that YES’ family environment was changing.

Things appeared to escalate early last week, with members and alumni expressing confusion about the closure of the clubhouse and fear that the program would end.

“A lot of them are hurt, all of them are worried,” Barrett wrote. “There are rumors going around that YES might not make it to next year and the kids are freaked out. They feel like everyone abandoned them.”

Loudermilk said he understands their concerns.

Many of the teens who attend YES come from unstable environments and change is especially difficult for them. Many of them worried that their staff members’ departures were somehow their fault, he said

There have been several recent meetings with the new staff members and the teens to talk about the recent changes. Loudermilk said he approached them as an open forum.

“We wanted to make them more comfortable and ease their fears,” he said. “We want them to feel free to ask us what they want.”

Barrett and Dearing also have spent time talking to students, encouraging them to take care of the clubhouse and each other.

“I told them, ‘If you treat this like your home and respect the staff, they will make it feel like home,'” Dearing said. “‘They will take care of you and you will have a good time.'”

Respecting the past, planning for the future

When he hasn’t been painting and cleaning in the clubhouse, Loudermilk said he’s spent time on social media this week, reaching out to parents and alumni of the club.

“We want to establish open lines of communication and make everyone feel like a part of the family,” he said.

Several members of the MHA board of trustees also recently started serving as liasons to the YES Club, to hear the concerns of staff and students, said Monie Havens, incoming board president.

Many students have expressed concerns that change means forgetting about YES Club traditions and memories. But Loudermilk said he thinks there is room for both the present and the past in the clubhouse.

“We are proud of all the things that YES has accomplished,” he said, “And we want to continue a relationship with our alumni.”

With new staff members, teens might also get to take advantage of new projects and ideas, he added.

All three of the staff members are hoping to increase the number of service projects the teens participate in.

“That’s something the kids are really passionate about,” he said.

They’ll continue their focus on education and life skills while also trying to meet students’ needs.

“The whole idea is to help these young people be ready to be productive citizens and get them graduated from high school,” Sitler said.

Tammy Evans, the mother of a recent YES Club graduate, said she wants to see all the teens and staff members remember that YES stands for “Youth Engaged in Service.”

“You don’t know how privileged I feel to come from a county that has this,” she said. “I’m very happy we have it and I don’t want to see it lost.”

She’s proud of younger alumni who are speaking up about how much the club means to them.

“They are determined that they aren’t going to let YES Club go down and that’s what I want to see,” she said.

Dearing said she thinks providing more alternatives and activities for the teens will go a long way in giving students the structure they need.

“(YES Club) is not a lost cause, not at all,” she said. “They just need to get back on track.”

A Newark native, Loudermilk started working at YES as a volunteer and said he was ecstatic to be offered a position there.

“We have just as much passion as others do (about this place),” he said. “And we want the same things they want.”

Change isn’t always easy, but Risbon said she’s optimistic that they’ve assembled a good team.

“It’s going to be a difficult transition, but we are willing to see it through and make it an easy transition for the kids,” she said.

Sitler said she’s hoping to get students back into the clubhouse as soon as possible so they can continue participating in programming.

“YES Club is here to stay, we just need to make sure it’s being done effectively and safely,” she said. “It will be back up and running.”

ajeffries@newarkadvocate.com

Found in The Newark Advocate November 15, 2015

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