• Meredith, Koester team up to lead innovative teen program
By Naomi Klouda
The road leading to certain points in life often take surprising turns, like service years in the Peace Corps or work on a family dairy farm setting one on a path to work with youth.
That’s the case for the R.E.C. Room director team Doug Koester and Anna Meredith. Each of them experienced an array of career positions that somehow make them uniquely suited for a rare community job.
Today, they direct and collaborate with a team of young people – this is the teens’ paid job – known as the PHAT team. PHAT stands for Promoting Health Among Teens, a bold program now in its second year in Homer.
“If you look at historical quotations about young people going all the way back in history, a lot of adults found they didn’t know how to relate to young people,” Koester said. “I think it was Shakespeare who talked about how ‘today’s youth are lazy and untrustworthy.’”
Meredith said she sees nothing awkward in relating to teens.
“A lot of adults find they don’t know how to relate or how to converse. To me, it’s a normal conversation with another human being,” she said. “But you don’t have the same expectations as you would have for an adult.”
It’s an asset to have a broad section of skill sets that may at first look like they don’t match.
Koester graduated with an environmental health degree from Illinois State University and headed off to Chad in Africa with the Peace Corp soon after. In 1992, he moved to Nome working as the environmental health coordinator for the Norton Sound Health Corp and the Department of Environmental Conservation. He worked with a youth program with kids from 27 area villages. Then to Homer in 1997, where he yearned to plant a garden and build a home on his own land. He worked for The Center for nine years.
Meredith took her degree in Philosophy at West Virginia University and came back to Soldotna, where she was born, to work a variety of summer jobs. Each winter, she returned to the family dairy farm in upstate New York.
“I’ve used philosophy in many employment opportunities – in fishing the Aleutian chain, working with oysters and scallops, food services, carpentry,” Meredith said. “It helps in the mindset for a certain attitude. It helped me meet people where they are at.”
Now picture Meredith’s skill set operating a center where young people come for tips on job interviews. As the hub for connecting teens to resources, Meredith is the person to go to if they want to join in HoWL outdoor adventures or seek help applying for a Homer Council on the Arts grant. Or, if they just want a safe place to hang out and talk about negative or positive issues that concern them.
Or even learn how to cook, through the FORK program.
Koester comes in for part-time support overseeing the PHAT team. His full-time job is parenting his and wife Katie Koester’s first born son.
“I think it was important to have both a male and female leading the teens. They’re talking and teaching peers about having healthy relationships and we balance out,” he said.
More than that, Koester and Meredith likely are setting history, along with the five teens they supervise. A profession interested in developing guides to positive youth development has their eyes on Homer’s PHAT. The national curriculum needed to be modified for Alaska’s conditions and is being evaluated by the Institute for Social and Economic Research. If it works here, their efforts revising and creating the curriculum that seems to work best could serve as a model for elsewhere in Alaska. Only in Anchorage is the program nearly as advanced.
“All of us together are the engine,” Koester said. “We are constantly looking at where to implement the program and how to make it more effective.”
Now in its second year, the R.E.C. Room’s role as a hub for young people and resources they may need has grown stronger still. It is supported through funds from the Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, matching its mission to empower local people to make healthy choices. The five-year grant operating PHAT lasts through 2014, then they will need a new sponsor in order to continue.
In the meantime, five young people receive on-the-job training. They are paid $9.50 at the time of hire, raised to $10 after training, and put in 10-12 hours a week. That’s good pay for a committed 15-18 year old and leads directly to fresh future opportunities. One PHAT trainer, Kayte Kerns, moved on to a position in Kodiak as training to become a victim advocate.
“This provides a real stepping stone,” Meredith said.
The work isn’t for the faint of heart. Meredith and Koester train the student-workers to conduct education around abstinence and comprehensive safer sex. That’s just one idea in a slate of conversations necessary to get down to the work of healthy relationships.
And they sort through parent’s concerns such as, will talking about sexual health lead to increased sexual behaviors.
Koester points to a study in 2007 called Emerging Answers, Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. Out of 115 programs studied, none led to evidence of increased sexual activity, he said.
Tackling this range of topics might be all the easier with a background fishing on the Aleutian chain, like Meredith, or navigating the political system of Chad as a young Peace Corp volunteer, like Koester.
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