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Renton Youth Advocacy Center in works
Although John Houston grew up in one of the first African-American families in Renton, he says he can relate to the issues of some of the city’s diverse population of teens today.
Houston grew up on a pig farm in the Highlands at a time when much of that area was woods.
The fact that his family was poor while most of his friends’ parents worked for Boeing, coupled with the racism he experienced growing up in the predominantly white area, all contributed to him turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.
Today Houston works as a school counselor and coach for the Renton School District, sharing his experiences as a recovering addict.
Houston hopes to uplift teenagers facing similar circumstances with plans to open the Renton Youth Advocacy Center in the Tiffany Park neighborhood.
“It’s funny,” Houston said. “There’s Fairwood there and there’s the Cascade area, but there’s also a lot of low-income apartments in that area.”
Because the Fairwood neighborhood is considered to be more affluent, Houston said he can relate to the kids living next door to and going to school with such contrasts in household incomes.
Tiffany Park and Cascade elementary schools both have a student population of more than 50 percent needing free or reduced meals. Lindbergh High School has 36.3 percent needing free or reduced meals.
“So, there’s a lot of kids in that area who need that uplifting and knowing that they can come out of that poverty,” Houston said.
He envisions the center to provide mentoring, tutoring, counseling and offer kids a recreational alternative to hanging out and getting in trouble.
He quotes statistics from the YMCA that say “teens who do not participate in after-school programs are nearly three times more likely to skip classes or use marijuana or other drugs.” It goes on to say “they are also more likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and engage in sexual activity.”
Houston is awaiting approval from the City of Renton to house the Renton Youth Advocacy Center in a building at Tiffany Park.
Its hours of operation would be after school until about 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m.
He feels that the hours of operation and his bank of volunteers being teachers, business owners, police officers and counselors set him apart from other programs in Renton.
Having a diverse array of adult volunteers he said is “huge.”
It allows kids to relate to different people, adults who’ve finished high school, college or technical school and makes them realize they can do it also, he said.
One of those volunteers is Sgt. David Skelton with the Renton Police Department.
Skelton grew up with Houston in the Highlands. He has known him through his years as a star athlete at Hazen High School, to his troubles with addiction to coming full circle as a counselor to kids today.
“John’s a guy who grew up in Renton and as such has a lot of support from the Renton community,” Skelton said in an email. “He’s a great friend of mine who cares about what he is doing for the youth and brings a much needed resource to Renton. While the Renton Youth Advocacy Center is in its beginning stages, I support his efforts – you won’t find a more dedicated individual.”
Houston counsels students with drug and alcohol issues at Renton’s Lindbergh and Sartori schools and Newport High School outside the district.
The kids he sees at Newport, even the minority students, who are involved with drugs and alcohol, usually still go on to succeed, he said.
“But, I see kids here in Renton, mostly Hispanic, mostly African American, who just continue to fail,” Houston said.
Because of his background, Houston said, being involved with youth for positive changes in their lives is a dream come true for him.
“I get to give back to the Renton community,” he said. “It sounds corny, but I love the city of Renton. I grew up here.”
Houston has had the idea for the center for four years but just got going with the project about two years ago.
He is working with the city’s Community and Economic Development Department and Parks and Recreation to use the Tiffany Park building.
Keith Fekete is a school resource officer at Lindbergh with the Renton Police Department. He is also on the board of the Renton Youth Advocacy Center.
“The Cascade area of Renton is lacking this type of center for the youth,” Fekete said. “In fact there are no places for the youth of south Renton to hang out. Our vision is to open a place that youth can go to after school, when their parents might be at work or they are looking for something to do.”
Although the volunteers are not paid, Houston and others involved in the project will work on grants for funding supplies and equipment soon.
Houston hopes they will be up and running by mid-March.
Renton Youth Advocacy Center is a non-profit organization. For more information or to donate visit www.rentonyac.org.