When Karen McCarthy co-founded the Youth Empowerment Services after school and summer enrichment program in Anaconda in 2016, the organization served just a few students. But flash forward two years later, and the program now serves around 15 students and offers a whole host of activities. What’s more, the program soon plans to add spots for around 10 more youth.
Now, after serving students from the Anaconda School District’s administration building on West Park Street, the program plans to unveil a new home for its students Monday evening during an open house.
The new digs reside in the former site of First United Methodist — a cheery brick-red church at the corner of Oak and Third streets.
McCarthy, executive director of the faith-based nonprofit, said YES purchased the building for $50,000 earlier this year with the help of fundraising efforts and several grants.
One of those was a $35,000 grant from the Gianforte Family Foundation. The program also received assistance from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation and the Anaconda Central Business Tax Increment Financing District for utility costs and upgrades to the building’s roof and electricity.
McCarthy said a lot of work had to be done on the facility to get it ready for Monday night. The nonprofit updated the plumbing, secured asbestos abatement, and repainted the building’s interior, among other upgrades. Meanwhile, plans are in the works for more improvements.
YES students helped with much of the work — cleaning, unloading boxes, painting, and more.
“They have real ownership in this building because they put a lot of sweat into it,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy’s husband Kauz, president of the nonprofit’s board, expressed similar sentiments.
“They helped so much with the preparation,” he said.
YES serves students from fourth through twelfth grade after school and during the summer. Tuition is $50 per month, though the program offers a reduced rate for students receiving free lunch at school. In addition to public-facing events like hosting a face-painting booth during Alive at Five and Art in the Park, the program offers students an opportunity to participate in art-based activities, work and life skills training, cooking, and a whole lot more.
McCarthy, a former special education teacher who served at schools and organizations throughout southwest Montana, said she started YES because she was concerned about the kids of Anaconda, who didn’t seem to have access to activities after school and during the summer.
In addition to providing important skills in the realms of work, ethics, and life, McCarthy said, the program offers a safe haven from bullying.
She pointed out that children today get bullied both outside and inside the home with the advent of social media. YES, she said, provides a safe space where kids can interact socially without the fear of being mistreated by others.
As for the kids of YES, they say the program is like having a second family.
“I like the fact about YES that it’s like another home away from home,” said Saleena Teller, 12.
“Sometimes when you’re having a bad day, you can just come here and ask Karen to talk in a private room,” Teller continued, noting that McCarthy and other program leaders help students learn coping skills that they can use when they’re being bullied — like how to calm down when they're feeling really angry.
“It honestly helps a lot. It’s like having another parent figure, but a really fun one.”
Other students from the program agreed.
“It’s like another place where you go and stop bullying,” said Keira Teler, 10.
Shawn Kline, 16, said the program also helps students become more tolerant and accepting toward others.
“Having the program YES in this town could help us maybe socialize and connect with people that we might not get along with outside of here,” Kline said.
Kline’s sister encouraged him to join YES. At first he thought the program would be boring, but what he found at YES was a place where he could do art and other activities and also hang out with McCarthy, who he described as a hard worker who cares about kids.
Tyson Obenauer, 10, also said he was drawn to the program’s activities.
“There is a lot of things at home that people don’t really do,” he said, describing how the program provides exposure to activities that aren’t always accessible at home.
Robert Smith, 19, was one of the program’s first students and now works as a YES volunteer and administrative assistant. He says that, in addition to coping skills, students also value the work and life skills training YES provides.
As for McCarthy, she said seeing how the program has grown and all the work the students put into the building feels like a dream.
“I just can’t believe it. I mean, I’m still in shock that we have this beautiful building that we can bring back to life and we can beautify again,” said McCarthy. “It feels like home.”