Gavin Massey is a 19-year-old on the verge of finishing his fourth quarter at Pierce College with his eye on the prize — graduating with an associate degree and transferring to Washington State University to pursue his dream of becoming a civil engineer.
Massey doesn’t shy from giving thanks to those who helped him along the way and shaped him into the man he is today. One organization that Massey contributes his success to is the YMCA Youth Investment Center in downtown Puyallup, which in November celebrated 10 years of empowering at-risk youth in junior and senior high.
“They helped me to go from becoming an annoying young kid to a caring young adult — to a leader figure,” Massey said. “They essentially allowed me to have a safe place to come and let me know if I was doing something wrong, and taught me how to correct myself.”
Massey graduated from Puyallup High School in 2015. For three years, Massey thrived at the center where he participated in daily programs, did internships, and volunteered in the community.
Renne Gilliam, the center’s program director, was integral to Massey’s success, he said.
“Renne helped me to become a great young man and a role model to young kids,” Massey said.
In his busy schedule, Massey said he still finds time to go back and visit with the new generation of youth at the center.
“I do go back and volunteer in any way I can,” he said. “Sometimes it is hard, because I have a packed schedule. Whenever I have a free moment, I drop in and say hi and see how everyone is doing. I always feel welcome when I come.”
The center was founded in 2006, originating out of Friends and Servants, a nonprofit founded in 1992 by Bill Bowers that aimed to connect at-risk teenagers and juvenile offenders back to the community via service projects and job skills training. The YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties acquired Friends and Servants in 2002 and in 2006 opened the Youth Investment Center in the former Cornforth Campbell car dealership building leased to the YMCA by the city of Puyallup.
Bowers remained as program director until 2010 when Gilliam took the reins. Bowers connected with Gilliam in 1992 when she was a young teen participant in Friends and Servants. Up until 2010, Gilliam was an active volunteer in the program.
“Renne has done a good job in connecting kids to the community,” Bowers said. “She has gotten them involved in other nonprofits. She is really good at getting kids more involved with the city, getting the kids invested back in the community, helping out with the Daffodil (Parade) float, and other community service projects.”
Gilliam visits junior highs and high schools regularly in the Puyallup School District to mentor youth who may not always make it to the center.
Most teens need to be heard. Every teen has an opportunity to connect to the Puyallup community through volunteer opportunities, program offerings, and social time at the youth center.
Renne Gilliam, Youth Investment Center program director
Bowers estimates that over the past 10 years the center has welcomed through its doors thousands of youth. In 2009 alone, Bowers said more than 500 students in junior high and high school were involved in the center’s programming and actively volunteering in the community.
The center serves students in grades seven to 12. The center averages 20 to 30 students a day and more than 150 students annually. There is no registration fee. All that is required is emergency contact information for the student and orientation on the rules and expectations of the center.
“Through relationship, we discover their needs and get them connected to the resources and assistance they need,” Gilliam said. “Most teens need to be heard. Every teen has an opportunity to connect to the Puyallup community through volunteer opportunities, program offerings, and social time at the youth center.”
The center relies on many community volunteers to facilitate programs for youth. Melissa Andersen is one active adult volunteer who has enjoyed mentoring youth at the center since 2012. Andersen started when her son was visiting the center regularly. He has since graduated from high school and moved on, but Andersen still loves connecting with the youth.
“I love the teens; they’re so full of life,” said Andersen, who also is a paraeducator at Sunrise Elementary School. “They’re so curious. They want to know, they want to grow. I just love to teach them.”
Gilliam said the success of the center is in large part thanks to Bowers’ vision and to the community residents’ and city’s support.
“The success we have comes from knowing that we are not the answer,” Gilliam said. “We are part of the answer. We are one avenue and are willing to partner with organizations, businesses, and people who are meeting the needs of the teens.”
For more information about the center, call Gilliam at 253-840-1214 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.