Walla Walla and Whitman contingents collaborate on an innovative multiservice center for at-risk youth.

Imagine you’re a teenager fleeing an abusive home.

Or struggling with addiction. 

Or expecting a baby while in high school.

What if you’re dealing with all three? 

Now there’s a place in Walla Walla you can go for help: The Hub on 3rd, a 6,000 square-foot facility that houses a range of resources—from tattoo removal to rehab referrals—under one roof.

“These kids are doing the best they can,” said Deputy City Manager Byron Olson, who chokes up when discussing vulnerable adolescents with seemingly no refuge, “and if we don’t take care of them, who’s going to take care of the next generation?”

Building Community

Located near Lincoln High School, which offers an alternative education program, The Hub fills in a gap in services for unaccompanied minors in the area. The genesis for the outreach surfaced after the Walla Walla Youth Alliance identified teen homelessness as its top priority. The Walla Walla Valley community—from city and school officials to private citizens to Whitman College students, alumni, faculty and staff—pitched in to support The Hub’s creation.

“I have lost track of the number of times we’ve had to scramble to find one of our students any kind of safe space to stay,” said Tim Schroeder, a counselor at The Health Center, one of three anchor tenants at The Hub, about the lack of such havens in the past. He has worked with teens in need since 2011 and calls The Hub “a concrete testament to the how much our community cares about and values its youth.”

The Health Center addresses medical and mental health issues. The other two anchor tenants at The Hub are Children's Home Society of Washington, which offers Early Head Start childcare, and, soon, an emergency overnight shelter for homeless 12- to 17-year-olds, to be called The Loft and run by the local Catholic Charities. The Blue Mountain Action Council owns the physical building out of which The Hub operates. The City of Walla Walla was also instrumental in its construction, contributing more than $150,000 in Community Development Block Grants and permit fees.

“Walla Walla is as collaborative a community as I can imagine,” said County Commissioner Jim Johnson, who has lived in the city of about 32,000 residents for more than 40 years. “We have people of different ideologies and backgrounds, but when it comes to the needs of the community, those people are able to… come up with solutions that everyone can buy into. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Director of Whitman’s Student Engagement Center Noah Leavitt, who has served on the board of The Health Center, echoed these sentiments. “Walla Walla is a small and accessible community filled with creative, entrepreneurial, civic-minded people who take the long view as they develop durable responses to local needs,” he explained. “The story of The Hub is just one of many examples of how the on- and off-campus realms here not only overlap but more importantly support the goals of both.”

Coming Together

Officials and nonprofit workers spent more than a decade acquiring the funding-about $2.2 million-needed for an endeavor of this scope. Washington State Senator Maureen Walsh helped secure almost a million dollars in state funding. Sherwood Trust, a private foundation started by Donald '22 and Virginia Sherwood that supports charitable causes throughout the Walla Walla Valley, awarded The Hub one of its largest grants, $280,000, in 2016.

The Loft main living space

In addition to enjoying recreational activities, teens staying at The Loft will assist shelter staff with meal preparation and have the opportunity to earn their food handler's license, a step toward employment.

“The board was impressed by how these groups came together to fill an unmet need in the community, realizing that by sharing their programs and expertise, they could accomplish more,” said CEO Danielle Garbe ’97.

Along the way, numerous Whitties have participated via jobs, internships, fellowships, research and volunteerism, developing “their leadership skills, their investigative skills, their research skills, their analytic skills and their ‘professional persona’ skills,” as Leavitt put it. “They gained mentors, built networks and developed self-awareness about kinds of work that might be rewarding.”

Sophia Webb ’20, for instance, co-facilitates a girls’ therapy group as part of her internship at The Health Center. “Part of being a politics major means I’m interested in policy, and I feel like it’s really important to get to know the students that have experienced trauma,” she said. “Toxic stress affects the brain, and so a lot of these students have erratic behavior.” That means “when they lash out or they throw a chair or they’re angry, it’s not personal. How they act is a symptom of another problem.”

Betsey Olk ’17, a sociology-environmental studies major who now works at the front desk of a midwifery clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota, also interned at The Health Center, primarily assisting with its website and on fundraising and planning committees. “I was proud to be a part of it and proud that Whitman was supporting this organization,” she said. “The work I did there, though not clinical, led me to the work I do now.”

Scores of other Whitties have partnered with the organizations involved with The Hub in various capacities and consider the experience a valuable learning opportunity and an exercise in empathy, patience and compassion. They also come to appreciate “how much meaningful and mutually-beneficial interaction exists between the Walla Walla and the Whitman communities,” said Leavitt. “Whitman is fortunate to be located in Walla Walla and to be able to be as deeply involved in important realms of life like this one.”

Schroeder observed, “The Hub embodies the vision, hard work, dedication and care that is the beating heart of the Walla Walla community,” and “the Whitman students that I have been privileged to work with display these same values in the integrity of their work.”

The Loft

The shelter, a bright, three-bedroom space, accommodates up to six teens at a time and includes a living room, kitchen, showers and laundry. The largely open layout promotes conversation and community living while still preserving privacy.

“We brainstormed names for the teen center, trying to find an inclusive, welcoming name that wouldn’t sound too strict or sterile,” recalled Maddy Poehlein ’18, a politics-environmental studies major who interned with Triple Point, a local LGBTQ+ youth group run through Children’s Home Society, another anchor tenant at The Hub.  

Beds in the Loft Desks in the Loft

Sleeping spaces at The Loft are split into one triple (left), one double and one single. Bedrooms are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis and separated by gender in accordance with state guidelines. A study room (right) is also available.

Once licensing is secured and The Loft opens, here’s what will happen when a teenager rings the buzzer at 3 a.m. or at any time of day or night.

Staff members on duty 24/7 welcome new arrivals. Sobriety is not required to be admitted, assuming the teen does not pose a safety risk.

“When a youth comes in, we give them a safe, stable place to stay, we give them some food, we show that somebody cares about them,” said Tim Meliah, director of Catholic Charities of Walla Walla and part of efforts to address teen homelessness in the area for nine years.

Next, shelter staff ask a few questions to start to assess the teen’s situation, explain expectations and request that pockets be turned out to screen for drugs, alcohol or weapons—no pat down is performed.

The teen is assigned a bed and a locker, and all items of clothing are washed. Within eight hours, the teen meets with a case manager.

“We want to make sure that we’re connecting them to support services, to stable housing and to an opportunity to pursue whatever the goal is,” said Meliah. “If it’s clean and sober living, if it’s a stronger relationship with their family, if it’s counseling, if it’s better nutrition, if it’s involvement in recreation programs, we’re going to help them facilitate that.”

The shelter must obtain permission for teens to stay from their parent, legal guardian or Child Protective Services within 72 hours. Teens will then be able to reside there for 30 days; the shelter can extend that period for an additional 30 days. School attendance is required.

“When we run into kids out on the street who need help, who need emergency shelter, who need medical attention, it’s really good for us to have a place like this where we can actually refer kids,” said Scott Bieber, chief of police for the city of Walla Walla. His department supplied early planning dollars for the shelter through community development grants.  

“One of the things that Scott and the police department have done is really to recognize the need for youth to have a sense of belonging,” said Meliah. “While they may be involved in activities that are illegal or unhealthy, it’s a matter of being able to feel connected.”

In addition to police officers, other authority figures such as teachers and youth group leaders will be able to point teens to the shelter, as word of it spreads.  

A number of factors contribute to youth homelessness in Walla Walla. There is a crisis in the foster care system in terms of the lack of qualified homes available, according to Bieber. This is compounded by the citywide shortage of affordable housing for families and the fact that few foster homes take in teens. Landlords also won’t rent to underage tenants. Untreated mental illness and drug dependency further influence the cycle of homelessness and intergenerational poverty.

Adrift teens may couch surf with friends some nights, said Meliah, but be forced to sleep outside the next—or remain in other situations that are unreliable or unsafe. “You don’t see it,” he said. “You may never go to those sections of town,” he said, “but it’s here in our community.”

“So many of our students face homelessness during their high school years,” said Lincoln High School Principal Marci Knauft. Having services available “just steps away from our campus is such a blessing.”

“There really isn’t anywhere for them,” explained Shelly Phipps, intervention specialist at Lincoln High School. “The Hub will be a very supportive environment to help get teens on a more positive track as well as give them a safe place to be.”

Teen Shelter Program Coordinator Erin Coffey ’17, a psychology major, explained that The Hub will use a trauma-informed method with these teens to intervene appropriately. “It’s an approach that looks at behavioral trouble, and instead of saying, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ you react with more of a question of asking, ‘What has happened to you?’”

“We want youth to transition into healthy adulthood,” Meliah summarized, “and we want them to be able to reach their potential so that they can become strong contributing members of our community. They’re our youth. They’re not just some kid—they’re ours.”

Children’s Home Society

Meagan Anderson-Pira, community director for Children’s Home Society, another pillar of The Hub, fondly remembers when the Early Learning Center opened its doors at its new location last year (The Hub becoming its permanent home after a series of temporary spots around town). It offers Early Head Start childcare for infants and toddlers ages one month to three years and serves low-income families, including teen parents who attend neighboring Lincoln High School.

“The first day, it was really fun to watch the parents and children come in,” she said. “The children were sort of curious and serious about where are we going and what is this new place, and then they would come into their classroom and see their teacher, and then they realized, ‘Oh, it’s the people that I know!’ and ‘Ooh, look, there’s all this new stuff!’ They just got so excited.”

More importantly, the vibrant, cheerful setup sent a message to families who may sometimes feel marginalized: “I think they feel good that there’s this place that Walla Walla helped build for them that says, ‘You’re important and we care about you, and you and your child deserve a beautiful center.’ It was fun to see that on their faces,” added Anderson-Pira, now in her seventh year at her position.

The daycare has 20 spots and a 4:1 student-teacher ratio. Furniture and equipment range from cribs and cots to tiny tables and a full kitchen. Children have their own individual learning plan, with an emphasis on play and plenty of time outdoors. Drop-off is at 7:30 in the morning and pickup at 5:30 in the evening. Staff chart children’s meals, diaper changes and nap times throughout the day and check in with parents frequently. Proximity to Lincoln helps with both separation anxiety and logistics.  

“Our location makes it very easy for the teens to get to school and not have that transportation issue,” said daycare site supervisor Sarah Thorson. “They’ve been able to do breastfeeding during lunches” and learn other tips to improve their babies’ diet and motor skills. For teens dealing with the demands of parenthood, the nearness of The Hub to Lincoln mitigates a major hurdle: keeping up on their own school attendance. “The last year that we’ve worked with the teens, it’s been remarkable what we’ve seen in their willingness and openness to learn.”

Principal Knauft confirmed that the center “has been a lifesaver in keeping some of our students in school. This program has given them peace of mind knowing their child is safe, well cared for and close by, allowing them to focus on their education.”

Cubbies at the daycare Outside play area at the daycare Inside play area at the daycare Small chairs for toddlers at the daycare

Daycare staff members strive to maintain routines that make youngsters feel relaxed and secure in new surroundings (portions of which are shown in these photos)–meals, snacks and naps at roughly the same time, and structured play. A nurse also advises families who ask about tummy time, breastfeeding techniques or when to introduce solid foods.

Parents receive support through access to childcare experts, a nurse and a family advocate who can advise on legal matters, as well as a pediatrician who practices on-site through The Health Center. In high-pressure family situations, these professionals suggest small interventions that may make a big difference—research shows that even at six months old, babies from low-income households have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can impede cognitive skills.

“Not surprisingly, growing up in a stressful environment is really hard on infant development,” said Whitman Professor of Psychology Melissa Clearfield, chair of the faculty and longtime research partner with Children’s Home Society. “Moms who are stressed out have a harder time just finding the time and energy to tune into what their baby’s doing.”

Clearfield continued, “We’ve found that infants from low-income homes have a harder time paying attention, and how babies pay attention at six months is really predictive of how well they’ll do in school at five and seven years.”

The Hub’s ability to work in tandem across agencies—referring teens to job training at the same time as supplying treatment, for instance—soothes nerves for teens navigating these systems and makes them more willing to avail themselves of the programs. “Teens, like most people, don’t just automatically trust anybody who is offering services,” said Anderson-Pira. “The Health Center staff have good relationships with the teens because they’ve been here a long time, so they’ve been able to loan that trust to us, to tell students, ‘Hey, this is a good program, you should check it out.’ And that has really helped teen parents to feel safe in leaving their children with us.”

The Health Center

The Health Center’s mission is to meet the physical, emotional and social needs of students across Walla Walla Public Schools. In the past 10 years, it has expanded to four locations, including Blue Ridge Elementary, Pioneer Middle School and Walla Walla High School; the Lincoln High School location is the original facility and the one housed in The Hub. According to Principal Knauft, almost all Lincoln students seek either mental or medical health services there during the school year.

“One of our big goals is to get them back in their seat and learning,” said Stan Ledington, executive director of The Health Center. Students can seek support for concerns ranging from learning disorders to depression to lice.

“We also expect that we’ll be helping with the Early Head Start kids,” he said, “so if a child falls and hurts himself, we may do a first look.”

Although not a primary care provider, the clinic offers two exam rooms and two counseling rooms, plus a tattoo removal machine, among other components, and employs the pediatrician mentioned above, a medical assistant and counselors. It provides no-cost immunizations, sports physicals and checkups for students without a primary care physician or adequate health insurance, among other assistance.

Whitman has a long history of partnering with The Health Center. For example, in 2016, the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority raised more than $50,000 to establish a new counselor position at The Hub. Intern Sophia Webb’s position is also funded through Kappa Kappa Gamma, and she is setting up a mentorship program between Whitman students and Lincoln seniors. More than a dozen Whitman students and graduates have likewise served in the clinic as volunteers, interns, community fellows and AmeriCorps members. Politics major Joshua Rubenstein ’16, a legal assistant in Seattle, connected with The Health Center through State of the State for Washington Latinos, a Whitman community-based research project dedicated to examining the social and political disparities facing Latinos in Washington state. He later accepted an internship position at The Health Center, where he worked to set up contracts between The Health Center and insurance providers.

Exam room at the Health Center

Intended to help teens shed gang insignia, the tattoo removal station at The Health Center is part of the Ink Out Walla Walla program.

“Working with The Health Center was a way to do rigorous academic research in partnership with and for the benefit of the Walla Walla community,” he said. “I saw the importance and effectiveness of their work and wanted to keep contributing.”

Lincoln’s intervention specialist Phipps said, “Whitman has really been a positive partner for Lincoln and our students. I have had some interaction with the Whitman students that come to Lincoln to support our kids. It is always positive and genuine.”

Ledington added, “We are excited to work with Whitman students because they bring a fresh perspective” and “insightful, creative ways to help us do things.” Schroeder further praised Whitties’ “youthful passion that is infectious and motivating.”

The Health Center’s philosophy results from the trauma-informed model that transformed Lincoln starting in 2010. Once former principal Jim Sporleder implemented it, the school reduced its suspension rate by 85 percent. Within three years, the number of fights on campus fell by 75 percent, and the graduation rate skyrocketed to almost 70 percent from 13. Groundbreaking data help explain why.

In the mid-1990s, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente conducted the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, one of the largest-ever epidemiological assessments of toxic stress. It ties 10 types of childhood traumas to negative health outcomes such as mental illness or chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease. ACEs fall into three overarching categories: abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. Individual questions refer to more specific instances within each category, such as intimate partner violence, parental separation and divorce or incarcerated household members.  

Researchers found that an ACE score of six or more correlated to a life expectancy about 20 years less than that of a control group with scores of zero or one. People with an ACE score of four are also twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholics. The average ACE score among Lincoln students is between four and five.

The Lasting Effects of ACEs

Select an ACE score to compare risk factors across the continuum below*

ACE Score:

The Hub relies on ACEs as a foundation for understanding adolescent minds and tailoring its approach to fit each teen. Whereas in the past, schools simply tended to punish misbehavior, “Our world has completely changed to sitting down with the youth and letting them tell us what’s going on in their life,” as Ledington put it.  

“Walla Walla is really a leader in caring about ACEs,” said Clearfield. “It’s fascinating from a research standpoint how much can be explained and predicted by 10 questions about early experience.”

The acclaimed documentary Paper Tigers (2015), which intercuts professional footage of Lincoln with diary cam testimonials from students, highlights some startling statistics on the prevalence of ACEs as well as reason for hope: For instance, 60 percent of Lincoln’s student body reported feeling abandoned by a parent. Sixty-five percent had an immediate family member in jail. A majority had lived with substance abuse, and almost one in three had witnessed their mother being physically assaulted at home. Yet the community has rallied behind them in powerful ways through projects like The Hub. Lincoln’s unique graduation ceremony celebrates each senior’s journey leading up to that milestone, with teachers saluting their individual accomplishments.

“The youth come with a lot of trauma early in their lives that often leaves them struggling,” said Ledington. “So we work really hard to help kids understand what their sources of strength are.”

Commissioner Johnson considers Walla Walla a case study in uplifting teens whose lives are in transition. The Hub is “something the community can be very proud of.”

Videos edited by Rebecca Devereaux.