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Community connections boost kids’ mental, physical health

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Kids play Ping-Pong and video games at the Station 71Five Community Center in Medford, which provides adult mentors and a safe hangout spot.
Medford community center aids kids and parents

Kids are getting more than a meal and a chance to play Ping-Pong, foosball and air hockey when they come to the Station 71Five Community Center in west Medford.

They get a safe, stable place to hang out, plus time with caring adults who mentor them.

Kids, teens and young adults make connections when they’re learning to cook tacos or gaining skills for jobs in construction, welding and other family-wage careers.

“There’s a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics that the key to developing resiliency in children is the presence of at least one competent, caring adult in their life,” said Matt Sweeney, Youth 71Five ministry director, who runs the vocational training programs. “We provide competent, caring adults and engage in trusting, authentic relationships with kids.”

The community center is also a resource hub for parents. Teen and young adult parents can talk about their struggles. Parents who are dealing with addiction or who don’t earn enough money to put food on the table can learn how to get help.

The work done at the center fits in with Jackson and Josephine county goals to improve the community’s overall health.

Three major barriers to good health in the Rogue Valley don’t have anything to do with what happens at the doctor’s office.

Lack of support for parenting, a shortage of affordable housing, and mental health issues — including addiction — make it hard for people to achieve their best, healthiest lives, according to a community health improvement plan developed by local residents and groups.

This month, Jackson Care Connect announced $145,000 in grant awards to 10 local groups that are tackling those issues. The nonprofit organization manages Oregon Health Plan physical, mental and dental health care benefits for more than 50,000 members in Jackson County.

Youth71Five Ministries received a $20,000 grant to support its Station 71Five Community Center, which is housed in a former fire station.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A former fire station houses the Station 71Five Community Center for families in west Medford.

Sweeney said adults at the center don’t just ready young people for solid careers, they teach them about healthy relationships and give them a vision of what life can be like.

“When they become spouses, parents and employees, we’ll have helped them do it better,” he said.

While the community center opened in 2021, Youth 71Five Ministries has been operating programs locally since 1964. It was previously known as Rogue Valley Youth for Christ.

Kids who learned career skills from Sweeney decades ago still visit him as adults and seek his advice.

Bud Amundsen, executive director of Youth 71Five Ministries, said the need for kids to form connections has never been greater.

“Young people are missing community. It was happening before the pandemic, but it got so much worse,” he said.

Amundsen said he’s seeing unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among young people.

“Young people have a hard time believing that tomorrow will be better than today. When you lose that perspective, you lose hope,” he said. “If we can provide them with a caring, trustworthy adult, that trust in and of itself can build hope. They start thinking, ‘If I have someone who loves me and cares about me, there’s an opportunity for tomorrow to be better.’”

When schools shut down during the pandemic, 71Five city coordinator Ken Ruiz started delivering breakfast and lunch to kids’ homes.

He said many families are struggling with poverty, and some face addiction issues.

The odds often seem stacked against parents. Housing and child care are expensive and hard to find, and grocery and gas prices have skyrocketed. Days and nights are exhausting for parents, especially if they’re raising kids on their own.

“It’s very difficult to meet all the needs of your own life, let alone take care of a child,” Amundsen said. “Parents are thinking, ‘How do I handle work and providing, getting food on the table, getting to the grocery store and making sure kids get their homework done?’”

If parents can’t do it all, they feel guilt and shame, he said.

When kids come to the community center, that gives parents time to take a break or get another chore done, Amundsen said.

Parents were excited when the community center opened because it gave kids a safer place to hang out than neighborhood parks, where they were often exposed to bullies and drug use, Ruiz said.

“We have a great team of adults and volunteers with different gifts that they bring to the table. It gives us a well-rounded team. It’s great for kids to have access to so many adults,” he said.

Ruiz has seen kids come to the community center, then turn around and bring other kids.

Kids get a good feeling when they help and encourage others, Amundsen said.

"You see kids come alive to the idea of ‘I can make another person’s life better.’ That gives them hope and purpose,“ he said. ”We help provide for their basic needs and their relationship needs. Now a kid has much better building blocks to engage in life. They think, ‘I can make a difference in my friend’s life, my neighborhood and my school.’“

Ruiz said one of his goals is that the kids visiting the community center today will someday become the mayor, city council members or the police chief of Medford.

"We want to develop the next generation of leaders in this community. We want to help kids reach their potential and be responsible,“ he said. ”I hope the Station 71Five Community Center will be the key element in transforming the way people see west Medford and the kids produced in this community.“

Other organizations sharing in the $145,000 in grants from Jackson Care Connect to support parenting, housing and mental health are:

  • The Family Nurturing Center for its First 1,000 Days Program to support expecting and new parents with social connections, parent mentors, fresh food, care coordination and more
  • Community Works to provide transitional housing and case management to help people build financial stability and prepare for permanent independent housing
  • La Clinica to address a behavioral health workforce shortage by training people in the field
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Southern Oregon to provide education, support and advocacy opportunities for Latino community members living with mental illness
  • NOWIA Unete Farm Worker Advocacy Center for short-term emergency shelter and food support for displaced farm worker and immigrant families
  • Oregon Health & Science University for an I-CAN Street Team to improve health care access for homeless people
  • The Pathfinder Network to create a welcoming center to help people involved in the criminal justice and child welfare systems to connect to community resources and peer support
  • Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley to keep vulnerable adults safe in their homes by installing equipment to reduce falls and injuries among senior citizens and people with disabilities
  • Set Free to update free shower and laundry trailers that serve homeless people

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.