KIN provides safe place for area at-risk teens
When 12 year-old Gezis Ritchie walks into the Kids in Need (KIN) center he’s all smiles. This engaging young man finds coming to this center one of the highlights of his day.
“It’s so fun and relaxing,” he said. “I’m home schooled so I like to come here and play games or talk with other kids.”
KIN is a safety net for kids between the ages 11 to 17 and its primary focus is aimed at youth that are homeless or have run away.
“There are many kids in this community that fall between the cracks,” said Tami Ellis, director of KIN. “While adults have places they can go if they are homeless there are many homeless teenagers that go unnoticed. Many hop from couch to couch due to the generosity of friends and there are others that just don’t have basic living necessities in their own homes.”
However, KIN also provides much more than that.
“While we’re here for runaways or disadvantaged youth, the center here is open to anyone no matter what their circumstances,” Tami said. “We have kids that come from all walks of life. They like having a place where they can get help with homework or interact with other kids while playing games and doing community service projects. This place serves as a safety zone for any kid that wants to participate.”
And this program is growing. Since Sept. 1 more than 30 youth have taken advantage of the services provided at KIN. Much of that is due to not only the efforts of Tami, but volunteers like Bob Klitzka and Angie Fanning. Bob and Angie are Americorp volunteers who basically donate their time to helping youth in this area. They do that by spending time with the kids, and mentoring them through personal, school and family troubles.
“AODA issues, blended families and other factors can turn a kid’s life inside out,” Tami said. “This is a place they can come and relax and get the help they need to succeed.”
One of the missions of KIN is to educate youth about the dangers of running away and offering them other alternatives to this devastating option. Tami, and the volunteers, travel to schools in Lincoln, Vilas, Forest, Langlade and Oneida counties and give presentations about KIN and what it has to offer. Tami estimates they connect with between 600 to 700 children every year. On these visits they also bring along a bin containing such items as notebooks, pencils, toothpaste and tooth brushes, deodorant and other basic necessities.
“Anyone can take what they want from the box,” Tami said. “If a kid needs a certain item they are encouraged to take it, no questions asked.”
While KIN has been in the community for many years, it became more visible when the center moved from Stevens to Brown Street in downtown Rhinelander last July. Right now it is open from 3 to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Since the program is funded primarily through state and federal grants, there is no cost to kids or their families to participate.
“Moving here has really given us more exposure,” Tami said. “We are seeing a big increase in kids who come here after school and seeing more kids that need our help.”
This former store front is still in the process of getting a spruce up. Bob and other volunteers have painted the front portion of the center an energetic green. It is here where four computers are set up so kids have a place to complete their homework. There is an air hockey table, a ping pong table, board games and snacks are served every afternoon. Lately Tami has been setting out more substantial fare such as soup.
“Some kids were coming in and really chowing down,” she said. “But then after talking with them I found out this was their supper. Now I try and have something a little more filling when they come here after school.”
Another program KIN offers are community service projects for the kids to do. This is an important focus for the organization. These projects may include cooking dinner at the Community House, raking at the domestic abuse shelter, helping at the fair or with projects at Head Start. One project the kids are working on now is making and decorating Christmas cards to send to troops stationed overseas.
“It’s amazing how these projects get the kids talking,” Tami said. “Sometimes just doing a craft, sitting together at a table, can spark some interesting conversations. Many times this is when a child will tell you some pretty personal stuff. Also, these projects give the kids a sense of purpose and a feeling that they are productive citizens of our community.”
In addition, KIN projects also help kids that are going through the criminal justice system. Many youth have to fulfill community service hours to mitigate their infractions. Since these kids are minors, community projects can be limited for them.
“Believe it or not kids as young as 9, 10 and 11 years old can get caught up in the system,” Tami said. “If they are required to do community service, there aren’t very many places they can go. However, at KIN we can always find projects for them to do to fulfill their hours.”
Since the program is seeing some growth, Tami is assembling an advisory board consisting of social workers, teachers, community leaders and others who are interested in helping kids in the community. She hopes bringing these people together will give the program even more exposure so every child, in every Northwoods community, has a place to turn if their life seems upside down.
“Many times just providing a place where kids can come to relax or talk with caring adults can make a lifelong difference,” she said. “We just want to provide kids with the opportunities they all deserve.”
For more information about KIN call 715-365-7003. The email address is email@example.com and the website address is www.kidsinneedrhinelander.com.