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Gun violence was endangering teens, so two Federal Way moms stepped in

Last summer, worried parents gathered at Federal Way City Hall. There had been an uptick in violence in the city -- including three gun deaths that May.

Most of the kids being referred to the courts were black. The chatter was that the city was ill-equipped to reach kids of color, and it was time for the community to step in.

What started that day became the Federal Way Youth Action Team, focused on mentoring teens involved with the justice system or at risk.

One of its programs is HYPE — Helping Youth Perform Excellence.

Shay Coston, 17, was assigned to it as a condition of his probation. “When I came in, I didn’t think it was gonna be nothing. Just another program to get me off probation," he said.

But HYPE offered Coston something he could work with: guest speakers who looked and talked like him, doing things he was interested in.

"Then when I really started getting into it, it was like you can really change the community,” Coston said.

Coston has been off probation for months, but he’s still attending the program.

That’s the kind of result Federal Way moms Charissa Eggleston and Kelli Lauritzen were hoping for when they launched HYPE in November from a donated space at a Boys & Girls Club.

Eggleston, who works for the school district, and Lauritzen, a juvenile probation supervisor, draw from their own experience and connections to make HYPE relevant to the teens they’re trying to reach.

Jason Clark, King County Superior Court’s equity and justice advocate, says community-run programs like this can be powerful, because they provide committed, credible mentorship.

“It’s those culturally responsive service providers that most times are people of color who have lived experiences that are very similar to the population of young people that we’re trying to reach,” Clark said.

On a recent weekend at the Boys & Girls Club, Eggleston passed out notebooks to five sleepy teens, spread out at two tables. Each of them had had contact with the criminal justice system. Three of the boys say they identify as African American, one as Mexican. The newest referral is white.

Eggleston goes over the schedule, which is written on a white board at the front of the room.

Over the next four hours, a speaker led a discussion on race, a volunteer chef taught the teens to cook a simple meal. They wrapped up by stuffing hygiene bags for the homeless.

“I’d like to get started by asking you each to write down something about your race that you think is positive and something about your race that you think is negative,” Eggleston said.

Instead of reaching for their pencils, the teens reach for the muffins laid out on the table. It’s a slow morning; some of the kids were out late the night before.

But when the discussion about race turns to discipline in school, Eggleston draws them out. She’s worked in the public school system for more than a decade.

Shay Coston pipes up. “When I was in school, I used to get searched. They’d do the eyeball check, DUI, stuff in school. I’m like, bro, that’s too much.”

Some of the boys nod knowingly. Another teen offers his own experience of refusing a search in school only to be searched anyway.

The discussion is primarily driven by the teens.

At the end of the day, they’ll give feedback about the speaker, sometimes offering tips. As a group they’ll decide whether to invite them back.

This spring, Andre Adams, 27, made a presentation to the teens about media production and never left. “It was only like an hour or two that I had to come, but I ended up spending the whole day with them,” Adams said.

Now he works with HYPE as a volunteer mentor. “If somebody would have explained things to me in my language, I could understand how to go about doing that, instead of maybe talking at me or reprimanding,” Adams said.

King County’s Clark said the HYPE program exemplifies what he hopes is a changing tide in juvenile justice: Turning more programs over to community members, including non-traditional providers who’ve been incarcerated.

“There’s a specific experience when you come in contact with the justice system, and you overcome, and you turn things around and are able to become successful — that’s really understandable for young people," Clark said. "The power of a credible messenger is amazing.”

Twenty-one teens have gone through the program; half now have jobs.

HYPE has helped Shay Coston find his voice. He’s become active in other programs run by the Youth Action Team. And recently he’s been talking to city leaders about gun violence.

“I’ve been going to a lot of juvenile meetings and council meetings, too. Just trying to get people to hear our voice,” Coston said.

Eggleston and Lauritzen put the cost to run the HYPE program effectively at $30,000 a year. At the start of the summer, nearly all the money was coming from their own pockets.

In the spring the Youth Action team was turned down for funding by the city of Federal Way.

But what some see as a reluctance to fund community programs, Jeff Watson says was just bad fiscal timing.

“The timing was not good for our budget process,” said Watson, the city’s community services manager. He sees groups like HYPE as working alongside the city.

Watson says the group will have another opportunity to apply for money in a few months.

The end of August brought some relief for the HYPE program. For the next year the group will receive $2,500 a month through a county contractor. That’s money they can use to pay workshop facilitators, and for field trips, work and educational certificates, and additional supports for kids.

Back at the HYPE meeting, guest chef Trudy Tatum taught the boys to make a shellfish boil in foil.

They chopped potatoes and corn, cut shrimp and sausage to stuff in foil packets. HYPE is structured like a family, and meals are where it all comes together.

There’s a quick celebration for a boy who was just released from probation. Then everyone piles in for a photo and Shay Coston, who is now in charge of social media, tweets it out.

The work is challenging, but the formula is simple.

Charissa Eggleston believes what she and Kelli Lauritzen have done could be replicated to serve more kids.

“We’re two middle-aged moms,” she said. “Kids are dying. Kids are hanging around with the wrong people and making a split-second decision that has ruined the rest of their life."

After lunch, the teens stuff hygiene bags for the homeless with shampoo, deodorant, baby wipes.

Some of these bags will go home with the boys themselves.

Sonya Harris contributed production assistance.

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