It has been two-and-a-half years since Susan Ricketts made her first visit as a volunteer to the Red Barn Youth Center in Gig Harbor. She remembers the teenage girl she encountered who was frustrated with her assignment to find pictures of food to out cut of a magazine.
“She had cut out pictures of Oreos and processed lunch meat,” Ricketts recalled. “She did not identify the bunches of bananas or fresh produce as food. It was clear that the only food this child had at home came out of a package.”
Ricketts, who is one of only three paid staff members at the youth center, has made it her mission to include fresh fruits and vegetables as part of every meal she prepares for teenagers who visit the Red Barn after school. Many of the fresh foods come from the garden she tends behind the building near Peninsula High School.
The meals she prepares for the teens at the Red Barn can often be the only healthy food the teens have every day, according to Glen Ehrhardt, the vice president and chief operating officer for the Red Barn.
Ehrhardt said Ricketts has become known as the Pied Piper for the loyal following from teens who come to the Red Barn to study and socialize. “I think she would adopt every one of the teens if she could,” said Ehrhardt.
Assistant Director Kellie Bennett has only been with the youth program since November but has already seen how Ricketts became known as “The Fixer.”
“She is a fixer of problems,” said Bennett. “Not just with the young people. She connects equally well with parents. She brings groups together if it means helping the kids.”
Bennett paid Ricketts the ultimate compliment, saying the Red Barn—and the world—would be a better place with more people like Ricketts.
The Red Barn is so much more than a place for kids to hang out after school, according to Bennett. She said young people walk in looking for guidance and quickly adopt the mission of the Red Barn to become mentors for younger students. Older kids, she said, come to the Red Barn knowing there will be mandatory study time to finish their homework. Volunteers and members of the paid staff are available to help with the challenges of difficult assignments.
“The younger kids look up to the older kids, especially if the adults only have minimal knowledge of the subject they are working on,” Bennett said with a smile. “The dynamics at the Red Barn nurture the younger kids and give the older kids a sense of self-worth and confidence.”
Bennett remembers one young person who came to the Red Barn looking for compassion because of the tough times he was having at home. The teenager was thankful for the support he received from the staff and his peers at the Red Barn, giving him the strength to not fall back into his old habits of causing trouble.
“It was just a matter of finding a group of people who made him feel like somebody cared,” said Bennett. “He began by asking for help but quickly transitioned into a confident teenager who completed his assignments without having to be reminded and turned assignments at school.
He was struggling with school, but now he is thriving.”
The Red Barn opened as the community response to the statewide 2012 Healthy Youth Survey that indicated that high school seniors on the Key Peninsula had higher instances of substance abuse and binge drinking, while reports of bullying among students as young as eighth grade were higher than students of the same age across Washington.
Development of the actual Red Barn was conducted in two major phases. Phase One involved the development of a common room with stool counter seating that provided a coffee lounge atmosphere. The Red Barn now has additional booth seating and a large open area with tables and chairs for the young people to chat and have study sessions. There are also opportunities for young people to participate in other activities, such as lessons to learn to play musical instruments. Completion of the first phase was done through public donations from local businesses and many private parties.
Phase Two incorporated a larger multi-purpose area with a movable stage. The area is utilized for a wide variety of activities such as basketball, concerts, stage productions and guest speakers. It is also available for rental by outside groups.
There is a community garden outside the main structure, as well as a court for pickleball and volleyball, a climbing wall, a barbecue area and a fire pit. The second phase was completed through donations, a robust grant writing program and volunteer opportunities including a partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Funding for both capital projects included grants and foundations, individual giving, donations from area churches and businesses and special events.
Resource for all
The Red Barn has evolved over the five years since it first opened to meet the challenges that face young people and their families on the Peninsula. It is now a resource for parents and families.
“Unfortunately, there were no recreation clubs, coffee shops or other youth-oriented gathering places in the community,” explained Executive Director Clint Rossen. He said the Red Barn hosted a record number of young people during the last year, with as many as 50 kids showing up to hang out after school.
The first hour after students from Peninsula High School and any of the middle schools arrive at the Red Barn begins with a healthy meal and mandatory study time, according to Rossen. Once the homework is done, the young people break into impromptu games of soccer, basketball or take turns at the pool table. The Red Barn also provides an art class with cooperation from the Peninsula School District once every week.
The school district has recognized the important role the Red Barn plays in the lives of teens, said Rossen. The district now has buses to transport students to the youth center after school and provides buses to take them home at night.
The director tells the story about one young person who was having trouble at home before the district offered transportation to and from the Red Barn. The young man would stay until dark and then walk more than eight miles to get home in the dark, often in the rain. “He never missed a day at the Red Barn,” said Rossen. “One particularly cold and rainy night, I decided to follow him when he left. When I realized that he had been walking home by himself every day, the staff began to take turns to drive him home.”
Rossen said the boy’s father was a drug addict. He had made the decision on his own that he did not want to go down the same path as his father.
“His experience at the Red Barn convinced him there was a better way.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington, who is dedicated to preserving the stories of our lives for future generations. He can be reached at DA@DAJournalist.com.