BY WILLIE WEEMS
Right next to an onramp of Highway 16 in Newark, Ohio, there’s what looks like an anonymous office building. It’s a drab tan box, landscaped with some drooping evergreens and lopsided shrubs. Its most eye-catching feature is the roof mounted solar panels, only visible from East Church Street. The only identifying feature is a small sign with the letters Y.E.S.
Y.E.S. is an acronym, standing for Youth Engaged in Service. Most of the time it’s simply referred to as the YES Club. Newark looks like a typical Midwest rust belt town trying to find a new place in the world. Downtown, a new co-working space by a dilapidated plaza of stores 2 blocks from the newly refurbished courthouse. Some buildings are being renovated while their neighbors look squalid. The YES Club functions under the auspices of Mental Health America Licking County. It is open to all teens at no cost, so all youths can participate as long as they engage in service projects like community cleanups or volunteering at food pantries. Staff and volunteers provide services, such as mentoring, tutoring, and character development. Those who show up also get a free, warm meal, and can take home leftovers.
The shades are all drawn, and from the outside, it’s hard to tell if anything is happening inside. This unassuming building masks the chaos and joy inside. The moment the door opens a sensory assault begins. It’s loud. Sound spills out the moment the door leaves its jamb. Teenagers are laughing, shouting, quite literally bouncing off the walls. The air is laced with the smells of body odor, cologne, dirty clothes, perfume, hard work, reminiscent of middle school.
The walls are colorful: one’s purple, one is dark red, and another is neon green. Down a broad corridor, the left side is lined with detritus, and up ahead sits a table covered with crafts and trinkets and keepsakes. A little further down the hallway are a battered air hockey table, a chipped foosball table, and some well used Guitar Hero controllers. There’s a calendar, an entire wall covered in chalkboard paint, with the month’s activities. Team-building exercises were the day before the gross food challenge. One day, they’re talking about gender identity, and another is a Mario Kart tourney.
The biggest room is probably best described as a common room, and corrals the participants.
There are several tattered, stained, mismatched couches arranged in a U around a projector displaying a long paused Spotify playlist. The far wall is covered by bookcases overflowing with young adult fiction. In the corner sits a shabby pool table.
On the couch across from the door are a few girls dressed in all black. One glances up at me, and quickly looks away, the fluorescent lights glinting off her numerous piercings. Her dyed black hair is carefully arranged to cover just one eye.
Hanging out near the back of the room are the quiet ones. Someone quickly glances away. He’s young, maybe 13 or 14. His dirty shirt is mis-buttoned, giving him a lopsided appearance.
To the left are some people ogling a girl’s new Jordans. She’s slouched back in the lumpy couch with her arms crossed and a smirk on her face, as the gathered crowd quietly discusses the possibility that they are fake.
Another group is congregated around a couch in the middle of the room, raptly listening to one of their number who’s gesticulating wildly. As he talks, clumps of mud fall from his boots and are slowly ground into the carpet. His head also moves, threatening to unseat his precariously perched camo ball cap.
The group responsible for much of the din is around the pool table. They’re all being generally loud, and give off a mischievous aura. A heavily freckled boy with very curly dark red hair and a black Tapout t shirt looks intently around the room.
Most of the people in the room seem to be at ease floating between groups. All the groups sharing the space never feel like they’re going to spiral out of control, they feel like a large, loud family.
After a while, and since it was a warmer day outside, and it wasn’t too soggy, several teens decided to go outside and play in the yard. The common area emptied out for the most part as people retreated to back rooms or decided to play outside. Those that stayed in the common room sat on the battered couches. The member of the week got to choose what to watch on the projector, and she chose Vine compilations. After each six second clip, laughter surges, before quickly quieting before the next Vine. After a few expletive heavy clips, a staff member insists on watching clean Vines, and a clean compilation is quickly found.
Meanwhile, some others come poke around in a large closet full of neatly organized donated clothes and toiletries. They’re also laughing, and eventually one emerges wearing an ascot cap and waving a black and silver boa. “Hey how do I look,” she shouts to the building at large before withdrawing back into the room.
Turtle, a staff member whose actual name is Craig, sits in a worn easy chair. His ball cap is quickly snatched by a youth, who proclaims in a raspy voice, “It’s mine now,” before darting into the back of the building. Turtle gives a half shrug, and checks his phone.
A diminutive girl with red hair and a somewhat flushed face comes in the door and makes a beeline for some of the staff members. “Nevada tried to hit me,” she said. Craig stands up and asks “What, did he take a swing and miss?” The girl nodded, wiping her eyes. Craig let out a little sigh as he guides her towards a swivel chair. Craig calls over Bailey, another staff member, and they briefly huddle up, quietly discussing what to do next. Nevada comes in and grabs a cup of water. He watches them talking in hushed tones.
At the TV further down the broad corridor, a few youths are loudly discussing if they should play Fade to Black or Orion by Metallica on Guitar Hero. They quickly settle on Orion, and its droning opening chords fill the space.
Craig leaves and fetches another youth, Jeff, from the yard. They talk quietly in the corner, Craig towering over Jeff, and Jeff’s gaze intently focused on everything except Craig. Jeff’s red hair bobs around as he moves his head. Seeing this, Nevada retreats to the computer room. He tries to sneak, but his large feet and thumping footsteps are loud enough for all to hear. Jeff is looking around more frequently, as if searching for a way out of his conversation with Craig.
The Guitar Hero rendition of Orion finishes, and a small crowd has gathered on the couches in front of the TV to watch the next song, which by consensus is Fade to Black.
After talking to Jeff, Craig gestures towards Bailey and they go back and join Nevada in the back room. Some time later they all emerge. Nevada slumps into a chair and rests his head in his hands, and he slowly deflates. Bailey sits down at her desk and opens a bag of fruit snacks, while talking to another youth who is playing around with a fidget spinner that they had 3D-printed. Someone offhandedly asks Nevada if he’s going to school on Monday. “No, because if I do I’m going to be expelled. And I might be expelled from the YES Club now,” Nevada says. “It’s up to Ethan now.”
Meanwhile, the Guitar Hero rendition of “Fade to Black” continues in the background:
“No one but me can save myself, but it’s too late
Now I can’t think, think why I should even try
Yesterday seems as though it never existed
Death Greets me warm, now I will just say good-bye”
At the YES Club, depression is a common conversation topic. Recently a youth was made Member of the Week because of her openness when discussing her struggles with depression.
More omnipresent than discussions about depression is Metallica’s “Fade to Black,” a song on the topic of suicide. Without fail, every single day, some participants fire up the Xbox and pick up the guitar-shaped controllers and play “Fade to Black.” And then they play it again. And again. There are 49 songs available to play in Guitar Hero: Metallica from a range of artists. If you want to be an edgy teenager, there’s Slayer’s “War Ensemble,” which is a fairly brutal peace song. There’s Thin Lizzy’s classic “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Central Ohio is in the middle of an opioid crisis, but Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” which deals with drug addiction, is never played. Every day, it’s “Fade to Black.”
Suicide is a significant problem in Ohio. In past years, the number of suicides in Ohio has been increasing. Now, the suicide rate is about twice the homicide rate (Ohio’s Suicide Prevention Plan). Youth suicides in Ohio occur at a rate of 11.27 per 100,000, which is slightly lower than the national average of 11.39 per 100,000 (Youth Suicide in Ohio).
There have been some mental health struggles in the area around Newark. From 2009-2011 Licking County, in which Newark is located, averaged 15.7 suicides per 100,000 people, versus an Ohio average of 12 suicides per 100,000 people (2016 Community Health Needs Assessment).
A paunchy man comes in the plate glass door, along with a young girl. He’s wearing jeans and a rumpled flannel. His dark brown goatee is greying, and his hair is in full retreat, a few stray hairs wafting up and down in time with his steps. He’s Ethan Pound, the director of the YES Club. His daughter proceeds to run up and down the brightly painted hallway. Craig stands up and quietly calls Ethan into a separate room. After a few minutes, Ethan emerges and quietly fetches Nevada, and Bailey follows. As the door closes, I catch a brief glimpse of Nevada, his head hung. Bailey, Craig, and Ethan emerge, and Nevada vanishes into a back room. “I think that the biggest problem is that he lacks empathy,” says Craig. It turns out that Nevada has a history of behaving inappropriately towards girls at school, and the staff members seem to think that’s another manifestation of his lack of empathy. Nevada’s mom comes in to pick him up and Ethan quietly calls her into the side room.
“Oh my God, are you fuhreaking kidding me?!” shouts a youth at the TV, while the assembled group cracks up. Apparently he had narrowly lost this round of Guitar Hero to his opponent.
After several minutes Ethan and Nevada’s mom reappear. Ethan’s quietly saying “… might be good to get a police officer or someone to talk to him. If you want, we can set that up, we have connections.”
As it turns out, Ethan decided not to kick Nevada out of the YES Club. He starts with a blank slate when he returns. The punishments at the YES Club are not punishments per se. If anything, the discipline process could probably be described as restorative justice, where the focus is not punitive, but on learning from past actions. For instance, a youth got fairly mad one day and punched a hole in the flimsy drywall. Instead of seeing a bad situation, the staff managed to turn it into a net positive situation. Like at least they didn’t punch a person. And instead of suspending the youth, which probably would have occurred in a regular school environment, Ethan had the youth patch the drywall.
Ethan Pound was born in Newark, ran cross-country at Watkins Memorial High School, and graduated in 1994. High school was an interesting time for him. In high school, cross country took up most of his time, so most of the mischief Ethan got into was with the team. Like that one time they threw everything that wasn’t attached out of a hotel room window. Or when he lit a hotel toilet on fire. He ran and went to class for the most part, and did little else. By his own admission, he rarely volunteered in high school.
“Honestly, I was kind of a jerk,” he says. “I was fifteenth in my class, but I wasn’t accepted into NHS [National Honors Society]. I could just go through and get good grades without really paying attention, and I made a point of letting everyone know [that].”
After graduating, he attended Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Then he dropped out. For a few years, he worked at his family’s photography business before attending culinary school. He dropped out of that too, before going back to work with his family. “I didn’t really fail. I dropped out because I was afraid of failing. I was afraid of failure.” He later attended The Ohio State University, where he got his Bachelor’s in Social Work. While at Ohio State, he met Trisha, who is now his wife.
After he got his degree, Ethan eventually took a job with 2 on 1, as a crisis response specialist. One of his responsibilities was answering suicide hotline calls. “The hardest part of this type of work is leaving it at the door when you leave.” While he was working at 2 on 1, his wife spent some time working at the YES Club. Later, the YES Club went through a series of rapid staff changes and at least one brief closure, leading many in the community to speculate about its future.
Mental Health of America Licking County (MHALC) was looking for a licensed social worker to be in charge of the YES Club. Even though he didn’t quite have the qualifications that MHALC was looking for, Ethan started as the temporary Coordinator. There were some rough times early on. “That’s the way we learn,” said Ethan. “Trying and failing, and trying to not get too frightened.” As a result of the lessons learned, Ethan and the other new staff members made some small, yet significant changes. They required that every participant take part in activities, and also provided the participants with a sense of consistency. Ethan was soon selected to be the permanent director.
The students at Newark High School are lucky. The YES Club is close by, and most of the participants are from Newark High, since there’s a bus that drops them off at the end of the school day. The students at other high schools are not so lucky. Watkins Memorial High School on the other side of Licking County has no afterschool programs like the YES Club. Despite this, another afterschool program is in the works, just a few blocks away from the YES Club.
The YES Club is also totally dependent on generosity. They operate on an annual budget of around $200,000, and do enormous amounts of good for the community. Even though they are an after school program, they currently receive no funding from state or county agencies. According to Penny Sitler, the director for MHALC, “We [MHALC] receive local money to support YES Club from Mental Health & Recovery for Licking and Knox Counties (local mental health levy dollars), United Way of Licking County and Licking County Foundation. We also get occasional grants for specific things like a new oven/refrigerator/microwave or technology. Several churches also support YES Club.” $200,000 may sound like a lot of money, but it goes quickly. There’s the fulltime staff to pay, the part time staff, electricity and water bills. Everything else goes to directly supporting the participants.
Although the YES Club does not receive any federal or state funding, many other afterschool programs do. Every year, afterschool programs across the country are at risk of losing funding. Since funding is distributed to the United States Department of Education, which then distributes to states, it is subject to the whims of Congress and whoever happens to be in the White House. Most recently, President Trump threatened to cut funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which provides money to create “community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools” (21st Century Community Learning Centers). The Trump administration claimed that afterschool programs lacked proven effectiveness (EdSource). In 2017, the 21st Century Community Learning Center program provided an estimated $1,179,757,000 to various programs (Accessibility Information).
On another day, all is quiet in the YES Club. It’s a Wednesday, so the participants are doing homework. Those who aren’t are in a résumé workshop. In the background, there’s a brief commotion. Ethan turns his head and loudly says “Sit down, and be quiet,” before he is wracked by a coughing fit. “Sorry about that,” he says quietly as he begins photocopying a sheaf of Alcohol Facts Bingo cards. His eyes become unfocused and glaze over, as he becomes absorbed in his menial task. Once he’s done slowly tapping the newly minted bingo cards on the desk to straighten them, he checks his phone. He slowly lowers himself into a well worn office chair, and lets out a profound sigh.
After homework time, things get a little louder. Ethan goes into the middle of the common room, and manages to quiet everyone down despite his weak voice and a few coughing fits. Once everyone is quiet, he starts handing out the new alcohol facts bingo cards and bingo tokens.
The sounds of clattering cookware come from the kitchen. It’s modestly sized, dominated by a stainless steel commercial fridge. Bailey, another staff member who led the résumé workshop, is squeezing goopy orange cheese into a large bowl of macaroni noodles, while a pot of vegetables boils away on the stove. There’s a pass-through to the common room, and Ethan is coughing and hoarsely shouting out facts about alcohol. The participants are quieter and sprawled out on the couches or the floor, dutifully placing bingo tokens on the corresponding squares. Bailey turns and says, “Ethan definitely has a passion for what he’s doing and really cares about the kids he works with.”
She’s interrupted by a boy asking about makeup wipes-he’d allowed himself to be caked with makeup by some of the other participants, and he was now having second thoughts. After directing him to a cabinet in one of the bathrooms, Bailey turns again and says “[Ethan] is very patient, not one to self disclose… he’s reserved, quieter, approachable.”
As things were winding down that day, Ethan says the hardest part of the job is that many of the participants are in tough situations. Ethan has worked with a handful of participants that committed suicide. “You just have to accept there are too many challenges, and some don’t want help.”
In 2016, Licking Memorial Health systems identified mental health as an area of health care in Licking County that needed improvement. According to Olivia Biggs of the Licking County Health department there were approximately 31 deaths that were officially ruled suicides in 2017. As of early April 2018, there were at least 8 deaths in Licking County that were ruled suicides. In particular, many young men have taken their own lives. The Licking Valley High School community, which is about a 15-minute drive from the YES Club, had three recent graduates commit suicide in a 4-day period (Sitler). In fact, things have gotten so bad that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a team to the area for about 2 weeks to study the suicides and help prevent more (WSYX/WTTE).
There are several factors that can put youths at risk for suicide. Having a higher functioning family can help reduce the risk of suicide, and behaviors like neglect or abuse can increase the risk. Additionally, close friends can also have a large effect on suicide risk. If someone lacks close friends, or has a close friend commit suicide, then risk also increases. Poor school performance or substance abuse can also be risk factors (Aggarwall, et. al.).
Due to the YES Club’s fairly open enrollment policies, at-risk youth frequently participate. One thing that helps reduce the risk of youth suicide is for young people to build storing connections to adults (Fitzgerald, et.al.). The Y.E.S. Club certainly provides strong relationships to adults. Despite the inconsistent nature of the participants that attend, the staff know them all by name, and by nickname too. More than that, they are willing to help the participants however they can, occasionally bending rules to do so. The strength of the relationships between the youths and adults is palpable. It is abundantly clear that the youth care for the adults, and that the adults care for the youth. They are both very open with each other, and there is no fear in approaching the adults with a complicated issue. Suicide is an issue that affects young people across Licking County.
Friday is always fun day at the YES Club. Nobody wants to do homework on a Friday afternoon or evening, least of all teenagers. This Friday, they were doing an activity that is often requested: a disgusting food competition. Ethan made an example dish. Its base was a mound of congealed mayo and perhaps nacho cheese. Or at least something orange. Sticking up out of it like stumpy birthday candles were chunks of hotdog and sections of candy cane. On top of the viscous pile was a pickle, some peppers, and something red that was probably Kool Aid at some point.
However, Ethan’s dish was quickly forgotten. The youths took to the task with alarming dedication. The small kitchen becomes a hive of activity as various groups compete to out-disgusting each other. Someone’s just finished drizzling mayo over a stale chocolate cupcake buried under sauerkraut. A boy whose arm is covered in self harm scars reaches for the discarded mayo container. Someone else is mixing just about everything imaginable together into a gelatinous, yellowish mess. Meanwhile, their partner whose foster parents are only in it for the money, smiles as she eats spoonfuls of strawberry jam. Another is talking about his “Knock off Big Macs,” which consisted of sauerkraut, hot dog slices, and pickles, but the buns are pumpernickel dipped in milk, doused with random condiments. He’s partnered with a few youths, one of whom threatened to shoot the other in the face on a bus ride. Now, they’re laughing together as they survey the other ingredients they can add to their dish.
When the time comes to eat the dishes, initially teams chose volunteers to go up to the counter and eat the creations. However, it quickly turned into a few brave people choking them down, as the others laughed, cringed, and cheered them on. In the end, the “winner” was chosen based on how many of the different dishes they had eaten. Ethan walks up to the winner and presents him with his well earned prize. “Oh my god, I did all that for a Slim Jim!?” Ethan grins and shrugs.
After everything had been cleaned up, a dinner of actual spaghetti was served. Everyone is all smiles, even as they start heading home for the day. Meanwhile, another round of Guitar Hero starts, and of course, it’s “Fade to Black.”
All youth names in this piece have been changed.