Making a difference, taking the lead

At 2:30 p.m. on a recent weekday and Rachel Eskesen and Michelle Oliver stood before a group of youngsters in the cafeteria at Olympic Middle School.

Jim Westhusing

After-school youth programs honored for work with kids

At 2:30 p.m. on a recent weekday and Rachel Eskesen and Michelle Oliver stood before a group of youngsters in the cafeteria at Olympic Middle School.

Among that crowd were 13-year-olds Eric Melgar and Sumitpal Rai, participants in the after-school Olympic Leadership Academy, now in its fourth year. This program, offered from 2:15 to 4:45 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays at Olympic, gives kids a chance to build their math chops and have fun with their pals by participating in all sorts of activities.

Do these boys mind giving up some of their after-school hours? Not a bit.

“Mom said I needed help with math, so she picked up a form at the office and signed me up. I’m not really good at math, and I need help,” Rai said.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Melgar.

Melgar and Rai and hundreds of other kids throughout the city are beneficiaries of youth programs the Auburn Parks, Arts and Recreation Department has developed and put forth over the last 15 years, the flowering of ideas outlined by the Auburn 2000 Youth Task Force in the early 1990s.

On May 16, the Auburn School District honored program leaders Jim Westhusing and Kjerstin Hardy at the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) Metro Region 110 Community Recognition Awards Luncheon. Twelve other school districts in Metro Region 110 also nominated contributors. Westhusing and Hardy were chosen as the most outstanding group, and they are the region’s choice to move on to the WASA statewide community recognition awards program.

Here is just a sampling of what they do:

• Supervise three after-school programs that incorporate learning and study time with activities and snacks at Mt. Baker, Olympic and Cascade Middle Schools.

• Organize and manage the resource information fair at the annual “Reaching Out Fair,” an outreach event to middle schoolers in the Auburn School District and nearby communities.

• Coordinate the City of Auburn’s Youth Council, comprised of 40 students.

• Oversee all Auburn middle school “Tobacco Fairs,” serving every sixth grader.

• Oversee “Late Nights” at Auburn High School and Auburn Riverside High School. This popular Saturday night program is now in its 14th year .

• Organize the Battle of the Bands and Paint the Bowl at the Brannon Skate Park in Auburn.

• Manage the Auburn Pea Patch with the Youth Council. The foods grown in the pea patch are harvested and the council donates them to the Auburn Food Bank.

• Organize the WASL camps at the four middle schools.

• Supervise the concessions sales at the city’s outdoor movies that are used to send teens to leadership camp and provide other opportunities.

Good teamwork

Westhusing and Hardy are careful to point out time and again – indeed they insist – that they are only part of a large, powerful and far-flung team that works early mornings, nights and weekends – not to mention the regular workday – to make the city’s youth programming what it is.

A team that includes people like Eskesen, whom Westhusing calls “a tower of strength” at OLA.

“I think the key to keeping the kids in order is building relationships first and putting priority on those relationships with kids. If you don’t respect them, it’s hard for them to respect you. Plus, I like them, which helps,” said Eskesen.

“All of our programs are very important to kids who participate, whether it’s in a trip that we lead or after school program that we lead every day,” Hardy said. “There’s a lot of continuity between our staffing. The kids see the staff at Mt. Baker and Olympic, then they see them on Saturday night at Late Nights, then on Saturday afternoon on a trip. They depend not only on the fact that we are going to provide them with a fun and safe experience, but they depend on that mentoring they are getting and the additional caring adults in their life.

“School principals depend on these services, and if they went away their programs would not be as enriched,” Westhusing said. “We can’t get into kids’ home lives to make things better, but we can affect them outside by giving them enrichment, working with the schools and creating that matrix of opportunity.

“Our staff are out there making sure everything is safe and that kids get a really good experience,” Westhusing added. “What Kjerstin and I do is make sure all the cylinders are firing. It’s not a finely-tuned Porsche, it’s more like a Chevy V8 – it’s messy, it’s sprawling, it’s big, but we kind of get it done.”

Robert Whale can be reached at 253-833-0218, ext. 5052, or

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