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Teens organize against Bellevue YMCA's decision to lay off entire Kirkland Teen Union Building staff

Amina Chinnell-Mateen, (second from left), a Lake Washington High School senior, speaks to other youth about the recent changes at KTUB during a youth meeting in the art room at the teen center Tuesday. The Bellevue YMCA, which operates the center, laid off the entire KTUB staff last week in a reorganizing effort. - Matt Phelps/Kirkland Reporter
Amina Chinnell-Mateen, (second from left), a Lake Washington High School senior, speaks to other youth about the recent changes at KTUB during a youth meeting in the art room at the teen center Tuesday. The Bellevue YMCA, which operates the center, laid off the entire KTUB staff last week in a reorganizing effort.
— image credit: Matt Phelps/Kirkland Reporter

Claiming their voices were ignored, many teens are outraged after the Bellevue YMCA laid off the entire staff at the Kirkland Teen Union Building in an effort to reorganize the staffing structure last week.

The layoffs will be effective April 2.

Several teens have organized a Facebook page, “Force the YMCA to Hear Youth Voices,” and created a petition that has already garnered more than 300 signatures. A group of KTUB youth, staff and area teen-center advocates also plan to attend the next Kirkland City Council meeting on April 5 to address the council and speak out against the issue.

“What frustrates youth is we were promised that KTUB would be changed for the better, but not like this,” said Amina Chinnell-Mateen, a Lake Washington High School senior. “We don't want staff to be forced out. We feel as youth we are being ignored."

The Bellevue YMCA took over operations of the city-owned teen center last July, after the Friends of Youth organization decided it could not maintain KTUB past its 10-year contract. Under the new 10-year contract, the YMCA will operate the 5,000-square-foot facility that has provided educational and emotional outreach to disadvantaged youth in Kirkland since 2001.

Chinnell-Mateen, who has been a regular member of the teen-driven KTUB for more than five years, says the center has been a place where she is accepted for who she is.

“I’ve been through lots of ups and downs and staff has welcomed me,” she said. “They open up their arms and help me talk about my problems. They are like my family.”

The Reporter could not reach any KTUB staff for comment.

She found out about the layoffs last Tuesday from KTUB staff. She said the change was abrupt and the YMCA “didn’t ask us for our input.”

Chinnell-Mateen, who interns at KTUB as an activities coordinator, also worries the YMCA will eliminate some of the intern positions and possibly other programs during the organization’s reorganizing efforts. She said the staff and programs are the biggest reasons why teens come to the center.

“We feel that if the YMCA were to go through these changes, it would greatly affect the time youth spend here,” she added.

However, Joan Steberl, senior director for Eastside operations, said the Bellevue YMCA “hasn’t had any conversations about discontinuing any of the programs.”

She said the organization has discussed particular internships and programs at KTUB that are “not well defined,” such as the youth-run café. “We’d like to see a little more structure about what the expected outcome and impact is of those internships and programs.”

She added within the past nine months, the YMCA has spent quality time evaluating current programs and staffing.

“We feel we really needed to make the changes to move this organization forward,” said Steberl, noting she would like to see the teen center’s Youth Advisory Board well represented in the decision-making process for hiring new staff and implementing potential new programs.

Since the layoffs last week, she said YMCA staff has talked to kids one-on-one.

“Some are angry and we get that,” said Steberl. “But I am confident that it’s the right decision and we’ll all take a deep breath and it’ll be fine.”

She noted that current employees in good standing were invited to apply for the new positions, including director, program coordinator and several part-time positions. The current staffing structure includes about six full-time positions.

Keri Stout, executive director of the Bellevue YMCA, said the reorganizing effort is “intended to enable the Y to provide even more opportunities to youth in close collaboration with the City of Kirkland.”

She noted the physical components of KTUB will remain the same and enhancements are being planned for the future.

“We will build on the great work that has happened within the walls of KTUB over the past 10 years and will continue to offer programs in recreation, leadership, music and arts,” said Stout.

She said YMCA/KTUB goals include continuing youth-driven programs, increasing opportunities for youth, strengthening current activities/programs, implementing new activities/programs and offering a continuum of casual (drop-in or one-time events) activities.

“We are dedicated to conducting continuous evaluations to ensure that the programs are serving the needs of the teen in the Kirkland community,” she said. “It is this dedication to accountability, along with our commitment to maximizing our impact that has driven the decision to reorganize the staffing structure of KTUB.”

However, Nicholas Peter Merz says the decision to lay off the entire staff will “be a huge dent in the community.”

A music director at the Ground Zero teen center in Bellevue, Merz got his start at KTUB several years ago as a sound intern.

KTUB’s current director, Seth Dostart, who was laid off last week, was previously the director at Ground Zero for many years. Merz used to play shows there when he was younger.

“We’re a big family of sorts and that’s why this whole thing is really affecting us,” said Merz, 24, of the area teen centers. He added that Dostart “really helped me get my start here. He’s a fantastic part of the center.”

In the past week, he has received many e-mails from disgruntled bands and community members wanting to know what is going on at KTUB.

"The reason these kids come to this place is they feel at home with the staff, they trust the staff," said Merz, noting the teen center has been a key player in the all-ages music movement on the Eastside. "They can come to KTUB and feel like this is home, because a lot of the kids don't have a home. These teens will most likely turn their backs to KTUB, leaving a huge issue with servicing at-risk youth in the City of Kirkland."

He added the new contract between the YMCA and the city was based on the "agreement that they were going to come in and make the transition as smooth as possible."

However, Michael Cogle, the city's Park Planning and Development manager, said the city's operating partner "certainly has the discretion to bring on the staff they feel is needed to run the facility and meet the scope of work in their contract. We respect their right to select their staff."

But teens like BEST High School senior Mason McDermott say that KTUB's current staff are irreplaceable.

McDermott, who learned how to hone his guitar skills at KTUB, said the teen center "won't be the same with different staff. KTUB staff has a heart."

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