The Tacoma Youth Initiative

Jen Kurkoski surrounded by others in the TYI (including me in the lower right hand corner.)

In 1995 I was nineteen. I got a phone call from someone.

“Mr. Cameron, we’d like to start the Tacoma Youth Initiative again. We’d like you to run it.”

“No. I’m not interested.”

“May I ask why not?”

“The youth of Tacoma do not deserve the Youth Initiative.”

My participation was from 1992-1993. I don’t remember how I got started, but I think it was a girl. At the time, I was known for joining groups simply because a girl I was interested in was a member. It’s how I ended up being a Quaker for a while. More often than not, I’d join the group and get just as interested in the group as I was in the girl. The Youth Initiative was no different in that respect.

To explain what the Tacoma Youth Initiative was and what it did, it’s important to explain the environment in which it existed. The first Gulf War had ended. Bill Clinton was in the White House with a bunch of new optimism. And Starbucks had just gone public. When it came to young people, the general fears were drugs, gangs, pregnancies, and AIDS. Each of these fears resulted in various programs to help kids who were addicted, or stuck in gangs, or pregnant. Almost all of the programs out there were reactionary programs for kids who had already screwed up.

The concept behind the Tacoma Youth Initiative was a bit revolutionary at the time. What if there was a program full of resources for young people before they got messed up with drugs, gangs, or anything else? More importantly, how about a program that helped these teens do what they want to do?

The Tacoma Youth Initiative supported and promoted groups and activities geared towards teenagers in Tacoma. An environmental group called SAVE (Students’ Actions for a Viable Environment), various Safe Streets programs, and Crossroads Coffee Shoppe were all among the programs championed by the Tacoma Youth Initiative.

I know this is hard to believe, but there was a time when there wasn’t a coffee shop on every other corner of Tacoma. And the coffee shops that did existed were not exactly teen friendly. Most of the time a bunch of us would just go to Shari’s or Denny’s. A bunch of us would arrive at the restaurant. The waitress would roll her eyes as each of us ordered just a cup of coffee. 

Soon they made rules that we had to order food or they’d say we could only stay for an hour. This was the genesis of Crossroads Coffee Shoppe. The Tacoma Youth Initiative helped fund the concept of a coffee shop where teens could drink coffee, listen to music, and hang out indefinitely.  Since it was non-profit, there wasn’t any worry of patrons ruining our bottom line.

Crossroads existed in part of a large warehouse owned by the Boy Scouts of America. Part of it was used for the Sea Scouts, but the rest of it was donated to the Youth Initiative. It was located on Dock Street just below the 11th Street Bridge, otherwise known as the Murray Morgan Bridge. It was essentially in a forgotten part of Tacoma. This was before there were gigantic empty condo buildings or the Museum of Glass. Most people who ended up on Dock Street were lost, homeless or drunk. Once, a drunk guy in a pick-up truck took out four small trees next to the warehouse while we were there.

Those of us who were part of Crossroads Coffee Shoppe met every Tuesday at 7pm. We talked about getting equipment and finding the financing for our little part of Tacoma. We also had work parties where we put up walls and made the warehouse space into a place people could actually hang out. Occasionally as a fund raising strategy, we’d open our doors to the public for a night at a time. It was always a low-key affair. No one got crazy drunk or stoned out of their minds. There was never any violence. It was a group of teenagers responsibly hanging out with like minded people. I made many friends at Crossroads that I still talk to on a regular basis.

Crossroads Coffee Shoppe

Eventually I decided to get more involved with the Youth Initiative. The Tacoma Youth Initiative’s offices were located in two small rooms on the first floor of the Tacoma Central School building. Youth Initiative director, Jen Kurkoski was always happy for any help she could get. Many days after school, I would go into the office and help stuff envelopes, fold newsletters, or do whatever else needed to be done while listening to Jen’s radio ever tuned to National Public Radio.

In a very real way, Jen Kurkoski was the Tacoma Youth Initiative and yet, it never felt like she was controlling us. She was the first adult I’d ever met who I felt was on our side. She had a quality about her that got the best out of you and made you feel optimistic. At the time I had no idea how rare it was to work with a genuine leader.

After a while, I started writing for the Tacoma Youth Initiative newsletter. One month, I saw the newsletter and noticed that a paragraph in my article had been changed. I actually left school and went down to the office to yell at Jen for changing my article. She calmed me down immediately. It was the first time I’d been edited.

I was still attending weekly meetings at Crossroads, but it was becoming increasingly clear that Crossroads was never going to be more than a glorified clubhouse for us and our friends. No matter how much we tried to promote the place, we couldn’t get the amount of people in it that we needed to make it an ongoing thing. I decided it was due to our terrible location which I believed was donated to us because no one else on Earth would want it. More than once, I half-jokingly suggested we should burn the warehouse and use the insurance money to get a real location. One time we ordered a pizza once and the guy got lost. I said, “This guy is getting paid to find us and he still can’t find us.”

Back at the Youth Initiative Offices things were getting even more desperate. We weren’t just running out of funding for Crossroads. We were running out of funding for everything. Giving money to homeless kids or drug rehab for kids or for runaways or for former gang members has always been a good way to get in the papers. But giving money to average teenagers who weren’t in any sort of trouble? Hell, didn’t they just give $20 to their kid for gas? The fact of the matter was the Tacoma Youth Initiative simply wasn’t sexy enough to garner ongoing support.

In January of 1993 Jen announced that the Youth Initiative was closing its doors. This announcement got us more publicity than anything we’d ever done. Suddenly we were being interviewed by the News Tribune. Some were happy to see them. I saw them as vultures picking on a corpse. We’d had press releases all but ignored during the majority of our existence and now suddenly we were news…because we were dying.

Jen tried to put a good face on it. She had one last gathering. A cast party for the Tacoma Youth Initiative. She invited us to her apartment on Stadium Way. It was a chance to see some of the people from the other branches of the Youth Initiative. We talked and hung out and worked on a big poster of scraps from our various endeavors.

And then it was gone. As if it had never been. I never saw Jen Kurkoski again. I remained friends with many of people from Crossroads. In the time since we had tried to start Crossroads, coffee shops had sprung up like a disease. There was Temple of the Bean over on Division and North I Street and across the street from it, there was Buzz City. Later there was Café WA and later still Shakabra Java. Crossroads was gone, but at the same time, in a way, it was everywhere.

In the years following the demise of the Tacoma Youth Initiative, I got jaded. I felt that not only did the media and local philanthropists not do enough to save the Youth Initiative, but neither did my fellow young people. More and more I saw that the majority of my peers seemed to think that the world owed them something and the last thing they wanted to do was work for it. So when I got that call in 1995, I turned it down. And as far as I know, the Youth Initiative never started up again.

Now, almost twenty years after I first heard the words ‘Tacoma Youth Initiative’, I’m not nearly so jaded. I see it was something that helped shape who I am. It’s where I started writing things that people other than my friends read. The Youth Initiative is no more. But the people from the Youth Initiative are still around. One is a principal at a high school. One works at corporate offices at Zumiez. Another works in a law office downtown. And Jen Kurkoski is in California working for Google. We’ve all gone on to different things, but I think each of us was changed by our experiences with the Tacoma Youth Initiative and I’m thankful for that.

Could the Tacoma Youth Initiative work in today’s Tacoma? I don’t know. I’d like to think so, but as always, the problem is money. The question is, what would the youth of Tacoma do if they had the resources? I bet it would be something amazing.

– Jack Cameron

Were you part of the Tacoma Youth Initiative? Do you have stories of TYI to share? Email me at jackcameronis@gmail.com. It’d be great to hear from you.

Note: Don’t worry. 5 Question Friday isn’t gone. We’re just skipping a week.

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