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Youth are our future: OWL360

Youth and young adults are a key source of energy, ideas, and life for the communities in which they live. Kelli Dillingham Parcher, executive director of OWL360, a youth and young adults-focused organization in Jefferson County, puts it this way:

“They’re our future and our hope.”

She describes youth and young adults as people with tremendous talent and creativity. They are educated, curious, and have a voice. They are good neighbors and community members, despite the misgivings of some. They have lived experience from which everyone could learn much.

With proper supports, youth and young adults are able to more fully reach their potential and play an active and vital role in strengthening their community. When they have access to the resources that they say they need, and encounter service providers, educators, and other influential people who make the time to understand their experiences, background, strengths, and challenges, they can soar. When youth are valued by community members and organizations, they are given the space to become healthy people and contribute to thriving communities.

Because of this reality, OWL360 is dedicated to maximizing the strengths of youth and young adults in Jefferson County. The first step the organization took to do this was to establish a place for young adults to find community in a sustainable living environment: Pfeiffer House. Located in the heart of Port Townsend, this beautiful 1888 Victorian-style home has been remodeled into a 6-plex to provide affordable housing for 18-24-year-olds and their families, if they have them.

These young adults have an active lease of up to two years with supports to gain life skills, employment aid, education, or mental health or substance use disorder support. While it is not strictly recovery housing, it is a substance-free building, and OWL360 provides what they call “case care.” Youth often have other case managers, so OWL360 supports them in what they need.

However, OWL360 is quick to point out that youth themselves are the drivers of their own plans. They decide on their own priorities, and they themselves carry out those priorities.

This youth-led, youth-driven philosophy also informs OWL360’s other major initiative: The Nest. Currently under construction, this gathering space and community resource in Port Townsend for youth & young adults (roughly 14-24) is looking to open in early fall 2022. At The Nest, youth will be empowered to decide what they want to do, whether it’s to customize the look of the space or to organize the activities that give it life. It will be a unique place in Jefferson County, one where young people will be given room to display their talents and meet one another in an environment that is decided by themselves.

The Nest will also serve a key function as a one-stop-shop community resource for youth in Jefferson County. Rather than having to repetitively form relationships at several different service organizations, OWL360 will bring them together into one place where youth can get the support they need to flourish.

OWL360’s Youth Advisory Council is the body that guides The Nest. This collective of engaged young adults is formative to the kinds of supports and activities they want and need; then, OWL360 does the work to help facilitate these. It also plays a key role in creating partnerships with community resources, helping inform which services are needed most – ones that match them, where they can feel understood and safe.

One of the Youth Advisory Council’s new projects is a partnership between OWL360 and OCH: an initiative addressing substance use disorder stigma through youth engagement. Thanks to Cambia Health Solutions, OCH was able to provide $20,000 to OWL360 to promote youth-led projects to reduce stigma in Jefferson County. OWL360 youth have immediately leapt into action, discussing ideas in the Youth Advisory Council, forming new community partnerships, and even speaking at a youth-focused NA/AA meeting about stigma. (You can apply for this funding here.)

Equity is also at the heart of OWL360’s work. They want the Youth Advisory Council, for example, to be representative of the community, expressing the diversity of race, gender, sexuality, and, as Jefferson County is predominantly rural, even geography. To achieve this, they intentionally take a posture of learning from others to understand their unique strengths and challenges while being transparent about what it knows and doesn’t know. This posture is key to its outreach; OWL360 leaders and youth try to learn with humility as they connect with individuals and groups within the community to help bring about representation within the organization.

This core value of partnership and learning is also evident in OWL360’s efforts to connect with other community organizations. Dillingham Parcher identified these connections as “one of our top priorities.” OWL360 wants to make sure they’re as connected as possible with educational institutions, whether K-12 school districts or post-secondary institutions (e.g., Peninsula College), or other organizations like the Benji Project (youth mental health), Olympic Angels (foster care), OlyCAP (community resource), Olympic Pride (LGBTQ+), and more.

Dillingham Parcher says that OWL360 is actively seeking more partnerships from community organizations as well, even with those who don’t seem like a match at first glance.

This is because, she says, youth are our future. It’s important for all of us, as a community, to open ourselves to what youth have to offer, and to be supportive of them, taking action. Youth, too, want to give back from their wells of ingenuity, curiosity, energy, and lived experience. If we come together to empower them, as OWL360 is doing, we will all be better off for it.

After all, “They’re our future and our hope.”

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