Tag Archives: RAYS West Hill Family Center

Cowboys and West Hillians: West Hill Youth Venture to Cowboy Camp

Photo courtesy of M-Bar-C Ranch
Photo courtesy of M-Bar-C Ranch

For one unforgettable day wide open frontiers, mammoth steeds that galloped directly out of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, and stagecoaches loaded to the brim with cowhands who made liberal usage of the expression “Yee Haw,” delighted the children of R.A.Y’s West Hill Family Center’s Youth Counseling and Therapy Program as they made the Wild West their playpen.

Last Wednesday over 60 mostly elementary aged youth and their families joined with the counselors and therapist of the Center – located in the Skyway/ West Hill neighborhood-  in venturing to Whidbey Island to experience Cowboy Camp at the M-Bar-C Ranch.

The ranch, owned and operated by The Forgotten Children’s Fund, specializes in supplying a full Old West Adventure – complete with Wild Frontier era replica town that includes a jail, vintage cowboy costumes for anyone who left their spurs and chaps at home, and horseback riding on full size stallions – for groups of children with special needs who rarely deviate too far from the confines of city life, so, as the ranch’s mission statement reads: “They can have the opportunity to be the most kid they can be.”

This opportunity appeared to be welcome by the Center’s children as all are currently undergoing some form of counseling for reasons that include physical abuse, parental neglect, and anxiety issues, as it acted as  a much needed respite from the heaviness of many of their personal situations.

It was with this context that the young city slickers unabashedly embraced the country atmosphere according to Center Director Morgan Wells, who was decked out in full cowgirl regalia for the day and at one time found herself locked up in the town’s prison by a five year old deputy. (She would not reveal what she had done to warrant such an act.)

“The kids really had a blast! They were really excited about everything they did during the day – from getting on  these large horses, as the ones who had ridden before had only ever done so on ponies, so they kept commenting about how big they were.They also loved dressing up as cowboys and doing all the arts and craft activities that the volunteers led them in. At the end of the day I asked what everyone’s highlight was and there were just so many. The kids loved their time at the ranch!”

The trip was made possible by a generous local benefactor who paid all expenses associated with the children, their families, and the Center’s staff attending the day long camp. A gift that amounted to several thousand dollars and was made primarily because the donor wanted the kids to share in the unique experience he felt the ranch afforded.

Though the trip to Whidbey provided an opportunity for the youth to venture out from their familiar urban surroundings, possibly the biggest, and most enduring, benefit of the day was that it provided a much needed bonding experience for them as they often times face feelings of alienation and ostracism that come from participating in therapy at such a young age.

“The coolest thing about this event was that during the year we mainly work with kids one-on-one, so much of the time they never meet each other, or even see each other, unless they’re passing by in the waiting rooms. Otherwise, they don’t get to build relationships.” Wells said.

“However, by the end of the day today I watched some moms exchange phone numbers so they could do playdates because their kids really hit it off. I saw a grandmother invite some of the other families to her church for an activity that she’d doing this week. There was just some really nice relationship building between the families who come here, and I think that’s really special, because it gives kids the feeling that they aren’t alone. Now they can think: ‘I’m  not the only kid around here who needs counseling or needs someone in my life.’ Everybody on the trip needs counseling for one reason or another, and yet today no one could tell them that weren’t just a bunch of typical kids.”

The West Hill Family Center: Skyway’s R.A.Y.S of Sunshine

Rays 3By Marcus Harrison Green

On a typical day it can serve as a de facto community gathering hub, overloaded computer lab, hallowed sanctuary for religious revival, job center for the long term unemployed, adored romper space for toddlers, a copy/ printer/ fax depot of last resort, and a cherished Destress Zone for elders raising the twenty first century’s version of teenagers.  Of course, if you ask Morgan Wells – Director of R.A.Y’s West Hill Family Center, located in the Skyway/Westhill neighborhood – days at the center are anything but typical.

“The people who come in definitely vary on a day to day basis. They may be looking for housing, job searching, researching DSHS benefits, or wanting to take an online course, along with a myriad of other things. We want to serve as broad a part of the community as possible and throughout it all we want to make sure that we have a welcoming staff for them.” Says Wells.

The multifaceted West Hill Family Center – equipped with a computer room, conference meeting suite, children’s play area and a staff of five full time employees, in addition to two interns-  has been one of the Skyway area’s most venerable institutions, serving its residents for the past twenty years. Not a small feat when you consider – with a few notable exceptions- that during the same period the life cycle of most  businesses and organizations in the area have approximated that of the Mayfly.

Wells points to the unqualified support the center has received from the community as the main reason for its continued endurance. “This place is very much community run  and community owned.  Many times, when staff are away or sick, community members will just take the initiative to fill in for them, answering phones, helping people find resources, fixing computer problems, and keeping the building safe. It’s really them who have kept the Center thriving and helped us to avoid the pitfalls of many other organizations.”

To many of the area’s residents, the support has been both mutual and sorely needed, as Skyway- though falling within the Seattle city limits, and maintaining a Seattle address – is technically an unincorporated portion of King County, effectively meaning it lacks availability to the funding and resources that the rest of the city has access to.

As a result, the center has stepped in, during times both good and bad, to serve thousands upon thousands of the area’s residents. In several cases it has functioned as the last line of defense between them and destitution, both physical and mental. “If it wasn’t for the center I’d be homeless or worse right now. I really don’t even want to think about it!” one patron attested to as she used the center’s dual copier/fax machine to send her resume to a prospective employer.

Unlike the callous and aloof nature that is often associated with social service organizations, the center has cultivated a reputation of warmth and respect in its treatment of those who walk through its doors, regardless of circumstance, preferring to refer to all of them as clients.  “When I walk in the door here I’m treated as a human being, and not a piece of garbage like other places. You can tell at other places that they don’t care about you. They’re so condescending towards you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been waiting in line forever. It doesn’t matter if you have a child you’re waiting with. To them you’re just another number.” Said a young mother who frequently visits the center.

That reputation wasn’t acquired by happenstance, according to Wells: “Our vision is that everyone who comes here walks out of our door thinking they’ve been treated with respect, and that’s been a permanent part of our culture.  We don’t have direct benefits to give out and so we don’t have to ask people to prove their eligibility like other social service places. Our door is open to everybody and there are no eligibility requirements for any of our programs which is great. So we try to treat everyone like a person and not like you’re number 1652 at the DMV.”

Although it’s reputation has remained intact throughout the years, several new faces amongst the center’s staff have caused concern over possible changes in its operation. In a little under a year, the center has undergone almost a complete overhaul, as its previous director – Jennifer Moore, along with two of  its youth counselors-  departed for opportunities elsewhere.

Perhaps no loss has been as heartfelt  as the recent retirement of the center’s long time receptionist/ administrative assistant Cynthia Green,  who had been with the center since its inception, nearly becoming indistinguishable from it in the minds of almost all of the area’s locals.

“I don’t know, with Ms. Cynthia leaving it’s kind of strange. When I come in now I see new faces and I’m not sure what to make of everything. With all the changes I’m a little concerned.” said one grandmother who regularly attends kinship care support group meetings at the center.

Well aware of some of the anxiety that has arisen amongst the clientele, Wells has been proactive in soliciting the opinions of the center’s regular attendees, even going so far as to establish a community steering community to best identify what most needs to be addressed as it concerns the Skyway area.

“Historically, we’ve made an effort to be flexible and responsive when things change, whatever they are, whether at the center or within the community. I’m certainly willing, if we need to totally scrap something and start over and build from the ground up.  If that’s what we have to do to meet the needs of our community right here and right now. If the voices are coming to us and saying we need and A.A. group, or we need more Adult Education classes  ESL classes, or whatever that thing is, I’ll go after it and put my heart into bringing it here to this building.” Wells stated.

Even with the center undergoing potential changes, there is at least one thing that its regulars hope remains forever sacrosanct. As one stated, “This place, to me, is like a second home. A second family really. And I hope it always stays that way!”