Mercer Island Spotlight: Mercer Island Youth And Family Services

DSC_0738This particular spotlight is a special one, highlighting an organization that has tended the heart of the Mercer Island community for the past 40 years. Mercer Island Youth and Family Services (MIYFS) lends a helping hand, and emotional support, to all islanders who need a lift up. The MIYFS vision of a healthy island for all Islanders has been their driving force during all these years, and affirms need is not a cut and dry situation.  Their vision is empowered by the MIYFS mission: Provide—Advocate—Enhance—high quality services for all in the Mercer Island community, and to make those services affordable to any resident requiring assistance. One of 15 Youth and Family Service agencies in King County, MIYFS has formed here, on Mercer Island, a successful public/private partnership that has worked hard to make the island quality of life what it is today.

When I sat down and chatted with Cindy Goodwin, director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, I asked her for one fact about MIYFS that Islanders might not know. She replied that they may be surprised there’s such a demand for the MIYFS emergency assistance program.The emergency assistance program includes their food pantry, help with utility bills, holiday meals and gifts. Because Mercer Island is a community with many resources, the fact that some residents are struggling financially may not visually stand out as much as in other communities. However, when the economy slid into recession back in 2008 the requests to MIYFS for emergency assistance services quadrupled.  Many people lost their jobs as the economy crashed, and needed some help until they could find new employment. The senior demographic is growing in the Mercer Island community, and as long-time residents their assets may being in their home rather than a monthly retirement income.  Single parents on the island have also needed help along the way. The huge influx of relief requests has followed the weakened economy, and its slow improvement, very closely. Ms. Goodwin said, “Only in the last six months has the food pantry use leveled off since 2008.”

Another program offered by MIYFS also experienced growth in use since 2008, due to the weakening of the U.S. economy.  Joblink prepares job seekers to find work— from writing a resume, to developing interview skills, to learning how to search for a job in today’s online culture.  This service has been especially helpful to those who had been with the same company for a long time when they lost their jobs.  Those let go from longer-term employment often haven’t looked and applied for work in ages. The look of a resume changed in recent years. Through Joblink, unemployed Islanders can hone their interview skills, polish their resumes and learn how to effectively look online for a job, to be competitive in today’s job market.

dir photo_MIYFS_photographer Ali Spietz Since its inception, MIYFS has included counseling services. The 3 community-based counselors who work out of the Luther Burbank Park Administration Building offer individual, couples and family counseling services. Also on staff is a geriatric specialist to help residents aging in place, and family members helping their senior loved ones transition as they age. Island Seniors receive free counseling services. The community-based counseling is utilized by a variety of Islanders for a whole host of reasons, and so with its mission in mind they have created a system to make these services affordable to all who need them. MIYFS is one of the few non-profits in King County that offers counseling services on a sliding fee scale, so every resident who is in need of support can receive it. Ms. Goodwin explained how important the counseling services are to the local community, “On the whole, we do well here.  We are fortunate because we have resources…But at the same time, those we serve are like people anywhere.  1/3 of adults will go through a major depression. Kids in school will experience the death of a parent, divorce. There’s a higher level of anxiety here. Stress is a big issue. Those aren’t particularly visible, but important to help people with.”

MIYFS school-based counseling is the organization’s other counseling branch. When asked how being a non-profit organization fit in with the public school system, Ms. Goodwin shared that it has not been a challenge to work as a public/private entity within Mercer Island School District (MISD). In fact, she said that MIYFS school-based counselors have formed a great partnership with the school district counselors.  While the school counselors focus on academics, the 5 mental health counselors (1 at each school in the district) and 2 drug & alcohol counselors (at the middle school and high school) provide emotional support along the way.  This free counseling support enables MISD students to be able to stay on track and take advantage of the academic opportunities within their schools.

MIYFS also coordinates 2 highly popular youth development programs during the summer, to partake in community service projects throughout King County. “This is actually a well-loved program,” stated Ms. Goodwin. SVP (Summer Volunteer Program) is for 6th and 7th graders—they commit to a minimum of 4 projects over the summer.  VOICE (Volunteer Outreach in Communities Everywhere) is for Mercer Island students in grades 8 through 11—they commit to at least 8 projects, and may participate in a Social Justice Film Festival (SJFF) as one of their projects. Both SVP and VOICE have access to service projects through their partnerships with 50+ community organizations around the county.  Approximately 300 kids participate in the youth development programs each summer, and together perform between 10,000 and 12,000 hours of service.  The kids from Mercer Island receive as much as they give – they learn about the issues surrounding homelessness, poverty and social justice as they complete their projects.  The kids have good reputations with the nonprofits who they work with; they’re seen as good workers. In addition, the experiences the kids have through their projects definitely make positive impacts on their lives. SVP and Voice have been a “very powerful program for a lot of our kids,” Ms. Goodwin shared.

DSC_0725 The MIYFS prevention program, Communities That Care, is in the 2nd year of its second 5 year grant. This particular program focuses on impacting the community norms regarding under-age drinking and drug use. During the program’s tenure the drug and alcohol usage among island youth has witnessed a sharp decline.  In fact, in 2000 alcohol usage on Mercer Island, in upper high school grades, was approximately 58%. That rate has dropped to 40%, which is huge. The outreach mission of this program is to help debunk myths about drugs and alcohol, and is accomplished through sharing evidence-based messages on A-boards around the island, and through school based outreach. Communities That Care helped spearhead the social hosting ordinance targeting underage drinking in the home, which has served as another way to impact community norms regarding minors drinking at home.

DSC_0747MIYFS is part of the city of Mercer Island, and so is considered a city department. And yet it’s also a public/private partnership.  So, how does this agency fund its programs?  The majority of their funding comes from the popular Mercer Island Thrift Store. All proceeds of the Thrift Store benefits MIYFS. The Mercer Island Youth and Family Service Foundation raises funds to keep services going. The annual island event, Giving From the Heart Breakfast, is the MIYFS Foundation’s primary fundraiser. The breakfast is held the second Wednesday each February. At the 2013 Breakfast over $125,000 was raised!  In addition, a number of island groups provide grant funds to help keep services to islanders available and affordable. Windermere Foundation is honored to be one of the local groups providing grant funds to MIYFS.  Due to MIYFS’ relationship with the city, they receive a limited amount of city funding along with free guidance from the city’s financial planners to create budgeting plans to navigate windfalls and shortages through established savings. These savings are then utilized when donations don’t match service needs. Ms. Goodwin discussed how helpful the financial planning is to their organization, ensuring their services reach their clients without interruption.

Word of mouth also helps when donations are needed in an emergency situation, like when the Food Bank shelves are getting empty. Islanders generally rise to the occasion and donate what they can to keep a MIYFS program going. The size of the community makes it easier to feel invested in helping out – your donations are making life easier for your friends and neighbors. And this is all thanks to the powerful and empathetic vision of MIYFS– A Healthy Island for all Islanders. Their helping hand has sculpted an environment where every resident can thrive.  “In that sense, when I say we’re fortunate, we’re a community that really cares about its kids and its fellow human being,” expressed Ms. Goodwin.

If you would like to help invest in the Mercer Island community, there are several ways you can through MIYFS.  They always can use general, unrestricted donations for program funding. The next Giving From the Heart Breakfast will be held on February 12, 2014. The food bank can always use donations of non-perishable food items, especially during February, July and August. These months are when the shelves tend to be more bare. You can donate items to Mercer Island Thrift Shop. Volunteers are also needed to help at the Thrift Store, Food Pantry and provide fundraising support.

*Mercer Island Youth and Family Services staff photo courtesy of Cindy Goodwin. Photographer: Ali Spietz.
Standing, L-R: Glenn Boettcher- Director, Maintenance Department; Cindy Goodwin – Director, YFS; Chris Tubbs – Fire Chief; Kryss Segle- Director Human Resources; Noel Treat – City Manager; Bruce Fletcher – Director of Parks and Recreation; Scott Greenburg – Director, Development Planning Services
Seated, L-R: Ed Holmes – Police Chief; Chip Corder – Finance Director, Assistant City Manager; Rich Conrad –recently retired City Manager; Katie Knight – City Attorney; Mike Kaser – Director, Information and Technology

**All other photographs, photographer:Lisa Lewis.

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