Youth Era is offering virtual services after plans to open a specialized community center floundered.

A new mental health resource for Columbia County youth is starting up this fall.

Staff with the nonprofit Youth Era are providing virtual peer-to-peer support to youth countywide.

Caitlan Wentz is Youth Era's program manager for Columbia County. Youth Era runs drop-in centers around the state, functioning as community centers for youth ages 14 to 25. Wentz started with Youth Era in 2018 as a group coordinator for its Clackamas County drop-in center.

For now, Columbia County won't have a physical gathering space for youth. Instead, Wentz and Nick Clark, a peer support specialist, are running virtual programming.

Youth Era uses video chat programs, social media, and the live-streaming platform Twitch to connect virtually. Twitch allows viewers to watch as a streamer plays video games. The site reports more than 15 million daily users.

Youth Era has streamers who "get on and do anything from just talking with youth to playing video games to showing motivational videos," Wentz explained.

Youth Era employs peer support specialists who have personal experience navigating the issues many program participants face, including depression, anxiety, addiction, and interactions with juvenile justice, child welfare and foster care systems. The organization also offers support groups and crisis response teams.

"We want to be that productive place where youth can come and get support, gain skills like leadership skills, meeting new people, and then working on goals," Wentz said.

The program offers opportunities to develop leadership skills and connect with other resources. Youth who join are assigned a peer support specialist, who helps them decide on a "life assignment" to work toward, which could be as short-term as avoiding a negative behavior for a week or as long-term as graduating high school.

For now, Clark's work is virtual, chatting through video or text with local youth. Once COVID-19 restrictions loosen up, Clark will start meeting youth in person from Scappoose to Clatskanie.

"I prefer in person, but online, we are still kicking butt and connecting with a lot of people," Clark said.

Wentz posted an online signup sheet for youth last month. The form asks youth to share information about themselves, their experiences, and what services they want from Youth Era, from recovery groups to arts and crafts.

"It's kind of an in-depth sign up, but just because we want to … have an idea of what users are really looking for," Wentz said.

Organizers are trying to virtually emulate the variety of options available in drop-in centers. The drop-in centers usually have a pool table, games, a mini cafe, a computer lab, a game room, TVs.

"Rght now, we're trying to … tap into all those different facets," Wentz said. "We really, really want to work on finding out what youth are interested in."

A drop-in center in Columbia County "is the ultimate goal," Wentz said, adding, "I think that's honestly needed in every county."PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Youth Era looked at creating a drop-in center at this Columbia Avenue building in 2019, but the deal never came together.

Drop-in difficulties

A physical drop-in center would allow youth a space to relax, hand out with friends, play games, and receive support from center staff in a casual setting, Youth Era says.

The nonprofit began a push last year to open a drop-in center in St. Helens, at one point eyeing a vacant building along Columbia Boulevard. The county set aside $50,000 in its 2019-2020 budget to fund the program, and Columbia Pacific CCO, the local Medicaid provider, approved a $50,000 grant.

But since those awards were announced more than a year ago, little progress has been made.

Tia Barnes, Youth Era's chief program director, said that plans for a physical drop-in center were paused due to COVID-19.

However, Columbia Pacific CCO executive director Mimi Haley said that in 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Youth Era had not signed and returned the paperwork required to finalize the grant award. Haley said the CCO eventually decided to close the request, meaning that $50,000 grant is no longer being held for Youth Era.

Barnes did not respond to questions about why the paperwork wasn't returned. Columbia County Commissioner Alex Tardif, who pushed for the $50,000 from the county in last year's budget, said that the county funds were not given to the organization.

A 2019 budget proposal for the St. Helens center shows $100,000 in startup costs to renovate a rental space and purchase furniture, computer lab equipment, virtual reality, 3D printing, games and kitchen supplies.

The operating budget proposal projected expenses would be $288,490 for the first year, in addition to startup costs. The center would hire a program manager, group coordinator and peer support specialist, which would account for nearly $121,000.

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