ABHMS development grant supports innovative housing project for at-risk youth

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

Valley Forge, PA (01/31/2024)—Yakima, Wash., is in the lush Yakima Valley, a region well-known for apple orchards and wineries. The city is also infamous for its crime rate, which at 37 crimes per 1000 residents is one of the highest in the United States. The city is also burdened with a lack of economic opportunities, poverty, high levels of drug abuse and gang activity. Many residents work long hours in the fields and orchards, leaving their children vulnerable to hunger and abuse. Neglected young people are drawn to drugs and gangs. The pandemic has only aggravated these challenges.

The Rev. Andy Ferguson of First Baptist Comunidad Cristiana (FBCC), a multicultural English-Spanish language church located in the poorest neighborhood of Yakima, plans to address the problem of lack of opportunities for at-risk high school graduates by building a small housing complex where they can enjoy safe space, receive mentorship and gain new skills. Keen to support an initiative that positively affects the welfare of young people, which in turn helps to advance a larger mission to heal and transform communities, American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) awarded FBCC a $15,000 development grant toward this project in the fall of 2023.

For Rev. Ferguson, housing projects are not a new undertaking. When homelessness in Yakima spiked in 2015,  the city asked him to get involved in establishing Camp Hope, a low-barrier emergency housing encampment, to meet the daily safety, shelter, clothing and food needs of more than 180 people. In 2023, the state awarded $1 million to build a new on-site behavioral health service center and transitional housing on the Camp Hope grounds. Ferguson and other local leaders also built “tiny homes” on church properties to house single mothers experiencing homelessness.

Then, Ferguson accepted a call to serve FBCC. Shortly after, the church focused on working with children and young adults. “We felt God leading us to the youth, to pour into the lives of the young people in our community who are often left alone,” he said.

The church started a new program that connected local churches with area schools. The churches provided various ministries to students and teachers, and as the program grew, leaders of the local school district—which had a student population that was 76 percent Hispanic—approved the program for all its 22 schools. Each school is now “adopted” by a church that provides space and programming for school children in the afternoon.

By being involved in the program, the FBCC congregation could see more clearly the children’s needs. These included a safe environment, help with schoolwork and, more broadly, a positive influence. Surrounded by trauma, hardship and neglect, these children would become prime targets for gangs upon reaching middle school. To counteract this, before the pandemic, the after-school FBCC ministry operated three times a week and, in the summer, ran a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) program.

Ferguson says each child’s story reinforces the importance of the after-school program. Yet he remembers one boy in particular who helped to inspire the latest housing initiative.

“He came to us as a very troubled young man. He was very angry,” Ferguson says. “His mom was in multiple relationships. The guy living in the home wasn’t the dad. There was neglect and abuse going on there, and we really struggled with him. He had behavioral problems, and we thought at first, this kid’s not gonna last. But he kept coming back, and he came back the next year. He was doing better, and he would come during the week when he could. This young man had come to Christ. We realized he was very smart and had a lot of potential.”

According to Ferguson, Yakima offered no opportunities for young people, so this boy’s future was unclear. “You could see that even if he got into the local community college, he would have no chance to thrive on his own. His home environment would be a terrible environment to study in. You can’t learn in a drug-infested home, where there’s abuse and neglect going on.”

The after-school program highlighted to FBCC that once children graduated from high school, there was no way forward for them apart from warehouse work, agricultural work or crime. “There is no college, there’s nothing for them beyond high school. Most of these kids don’t think about ever leaving Yakima,” continues Ferguson. “They don’t have a vision for their future, even though many of these kids are smart, talented. It’s hard to come up with a vision when you have no inspiration or role models.”

When COVID hit, the church dwindled from 70 people to 20. Yet despite a shrinking volunteer base, the church was able to stay open and keep serving children in a limited capacity. Now, FBCC offers a part-time internship program for young people who have graduated high school that is a continuation of the original after-school program.

The new housing project is a solid solution because it offers a realistic and holistic option to those who want to continue learning in some form. “We’re going to provide what they need. What they need is a supportive environment that’s conducive to education or career,” says Ferguson. “Some are getting ready for college. But others can do very well for themselves by learning a trade.”

The idea is that safe houses, and the accompanying mentorship program, create a bridge between high school graduation and independence for young adults. They will be informed by a comprehensive approach that involves a continuum of care: prevention as well as intervention, including crisis intervention after school and summer school programs; safe houses; counseling and support services; educational guidance and support; trade training and employment; and university degree programs, all in a residential, community context.

Ferguson’s excitement about this vision is infectious. “There will be adult staff living in one house, and so they’ll guide the students that are in the safe house. And then there’s going to be a lead program administrator who will live in one of the houses. They’ll live, you know, on campus and oversee the entire program. In each of the remaining two houses, there will be a lead student, a young mentor who will be a guide for the younger ones. As time passes, we will be able to identify exemplary students who might want to stay on [as staff].” In each of the two student houses there will be space for six students.

A visualization of the complex and individual houses can be seen on FBCC’s website.

The completion of the building stage is planned for 2025.