WALLA WALLA - About an hour after opening the doors at the first Community Center for Youth dance at St. Patrick's Catholic Church on Friday, staff members grew anxious as they realized their numbers were already well past recent figures and approaching the triple-digit figures the center used to get years ago. So Executive Director Gary Lunden and other staff kept close tabs on the check-in sheet during the 10th anniversary celebration of the center, as a steady flow of kids came in for games, a basketball tournament, free food and a dance.
"The numbers have been really good. They have been coming up in the last few months. As with any business or organization, when you move you kind of lose your identity," Lunden said, referring to the center moving to Lincoln Alternative School for the last two years.
But relationships have also suffered over recent years as several key paid staff members have come and gone. Among those was Tim Meliah, interim executive from November of 2009 until Lunden took over in February.
"When directors leave, when leadership leaves, it is difficult and creates a gap. Students are tied to that person and it makes it tough," Meliah said.
In the span of roughly four years, the center has seen six different people hold the position of executive director, and most for only a few months.
Of the paid staff, Danielle McMahon is the senior member; she started working as a mentor for the center back in 2004 when it operated out of the Walla Walla Armory at 113 S. Colville St.
"We lost a lot of kids when we lost the Armory ... when we were in the Armory, it was good that we were at one same place, same time for a long time," McMahon said.
During her six years as a mentor, McMahon has helped sign in more than 30,000 youth visits. At around 6 p.m. Friday, she had already signed in more than 70 youths, and they were still coming.
"I think we are going to see numbers like this that we haven't seen since the Armory. It really felt like home here when we came here," McMahon said, noting the facility at St. Patrick's Church is equipped with a basketball gym, a cafeteria, classrooms and plenty of space. But just as important as geography are the relationships McMahon hopes will one day be nourished here.
"Middle school girls are still the hardest ones to engage," McMahon said. Then almost on cue two middle school girls walked up to McMahon's folding table to sign up for the night.
"You are new, you need to take this and fill it out. You can take it home with you," McMahon said to one of the girls while handing her a form with a list of the rules. Then she turned to the other girl and said, "I remember you. You have been here before."
Later she added, "There is a trust that comes and right now I don't see them bonding with more people because they bond and then they are gone."
The bonding McMahon wants to see is not only between long-term staff and kids, but also with board members. McMahon was critical of the fact the only time she ever saw some board members was when it was time to introduce a new director.
"I know I saw Teri (Barila), but I didn't see many of the other board members ... basically when we would see them was when they changed executive directors," McMahon said.
Andrew Dankel-Ibaez was executive director from June to October of 2009. But even before his coming and going, he was a long-time board member.
Dankel-Ibaez pointed out that when he was a board members, he made a point of going to the Armory to engage the youths, usually by playing basketball with them. He also remembers a time when three youths were part of the board.
"So there was direct input from the young people who were socioeconomically disadvantaged," Dankel-Ibaez said. But he noted most board members had little interaction with the youths.
"The kids don't know who their board members are. I would hope that would be changed," he said.
Board member Teri Barila pointed out that not all of her colleagues relate well to teens, and added that though some board members may rarely visit the center, they are dedicated to its mission.
"There was a lot of board member involvement. They just don't see it," Barila said.
She added that as far the turnover in executive directors, the board may have expected too much from a director, wanting someone who could handle all the nonprofit business functions and relate well with the youths.
"Nobody, whether a guy or a girl, is supposed to do it all. You like to hire somebody that is supposed to be able to do everything. But we have tried to move away from that," she said.
In addition to hiring a new director, the center now has a new program manager, Johnny Johnson, who is finishing his second week on the job.
"I would say that the most important thing is that these kids know this is not a job. They are not a number. But that we truly care about them and how they spend their time. And the whole thing is to protect them from being involved in drugs and gangs, and there are alternatives."
As for board involvement, one of original board members from the late 1990s, Walla Walla Police Chief Chuck Fulton, noted that even the board has seen a lot of change recently.
"It is kind of a new board, and that is important to bring in some new energy," Fulton said, as he and several other board members moved about the center.
By the end of the night 123 kids signed up and took part in the dance, a record for the new facility, a turnout that easily rivaled numbers from years ago.
Lunden said he told the board he would commit to the position for "five years plus."
But there is still the issue of not having a permanent facility, a building they own.
"When we have our strategic planning meeting that is going to be our leading topic," he said.