If Deborah Gregor, the Executive Director of the Leavenworth Youth Achievement Center (YAC), ever tells you "I'm not staying," don't necessarily believe her.
She has apparently been telling people — including small children — she's not staying with the YAC for several decades. Yet, she's still there.
And the YAC is going strong, with the Youth Support Program having just begun their 2013 afterschool programs, Monday through Thursday from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm.
Kids aged 7-18 are welcome — there is no fee, no cost, and no qualification requirements. All they need is a parent's permission.
And what they get is supervised access to a computer lab, arts and crafts programs, prevention programs, weekly piano lessons, an adventure club, a bike club organized by the Santa Fe Trails Bicycle shop — with helmets and bikes provided, a snack, and homework help.
"Parents bring their kids here," Gregor says, "because — especially for the middle-school aged — there's not a place for them to go after school. And where there are places they're very expensive."
"And you don't want to leave those kids at home alone. So this is a great place for them to come."
In the summer, the Youth Support Program hosts two-week-long summer camps, with water balloon fights, hula-hooping, and more involved art projects. Soon, they are starting a Lego club (the Youth Advisory Commission is doing a Lego drive to get them started) and a computer-based program for kids to create their own super heroes.
"Right now we have four young people," says Gregor, "that come in after school that are homeless."
"This gives them a place where they can be kids. It is secure. They get a snack. Somebody says, 'Did you get your homework done? Let's get that homework done now.'"
Gregor's mother was actually the first in the family to get involved with the organization, when she was asked to run the program when it first started, back when it was under the auspices of Big Brothers and Sisters. She was willing to do the work for one year unpaid, and Gregor said, "I'll help you."
Seven years later, Gregor's mother moved on to work with substance abuse issues at Lansing Correctional Facility, but Gregor stayed.
"So that left me," she says, "but I couldn't walk out on the kids."
She's now been with the organization for 36 years.
Keeping the work in the family, Gregor's youngest son Joe joined the organization almost eight years ago, making he and his mother the only paid staff.
"He's a wonderful husband," says Gregor, "and a wonderful father, and a very tolerant son."
Joe, sounding like his mother, only planned to work with YAC "just for the summer."
Page 2 of 3 - Gregor's own transition from volunteer to staff happened because of a grant application made during Gov. John Carlin's administration.
"We wrote the grant," Gregor recalls, "went through the hearings, and it was approved. With one stipulation — that I stay on and administer the grant."
"And I told them, 'I'm only a volunteer.' They said, 'That's the only way we'll give you the funding.'"
As becomes a common refrain in the life story of the YAC, the grant's funding dried up. More funding opportunities came up, each keeping the operation afloat for a couple of years, before evaporating.
"We started getting a little funding here," says Gregor, "and little funding there — it didn't take a lot of money to keep us up and going."
"And I'm still staying," she says, "because every time you turn around funding is going away. But I keep saying, 'I'm not staying.' 'I am NOT staying here.'"
Then, disaster struck. A nighttime fire in an upstairs apartment destroyed the program's building.
"There was a point before the fire," remember Gregor, "there was a group of kids that looked at me — because I was telling the kids, 'I'm not staying,' and they looked at me and said, 'Would you please just stay until we graduate from high school?'"
"And I said 'OK I will stay that long.' That was in the late 1990s."
Fortunately, the program (still affiliated with Big Brothers and Sisters at that point) found temporary housing with Riverside Resources.
With a grant from the City of Leavenworth for $100,000 and a loan from the Lion's Club, the coalition was able to purchase an old bar and the larger building next door at 314 Delaware in 1999. That was also the year the coalition incorporated and renamed itself the Youth Achievement Center.
While the old bar is still visible, the facility has been remade to house a computer lab, several comfortable seating areas, a DJ booth, and a couple of pool and air hockey tables.
And, it is completely handicap-accessible — making it the perfect facility for a current YAC partner SNAP to host parties and recreation events for people with disabilities.
How did Gregor become the last man standing?
"I think if things were ever secure, that it would be easier to walk away. But when you're on a shaky foundation, and you believe in what you're doing, and you know it makes a difference, you can't walk away."
And Gregor never doubts that the work is making a difference. The kids that return as adults, sometimes bringing their own children to the program, give her plenty of affirmation that the YAC is having an impact.
Page 3 of 3 - "I had a young man back this summer," says Gregor, "who is in school and he's going to go on to medical school and go into medical research. And he has had two great mentors in the community who helped him get there. He came from a family where that was not in his future.
"But he had been with us from the time he started school … We gave him a place to blossom, to be secure, and to see what he could do."
Now the facility also hosts the Leavenworth Soccer Association and SNAP offices, as well as Girl Scout lock-ins and holiday parties. West Intermediate School hosts dances for fifth- and sixth-grade students.
The "Tribe of Judah," a religious program for young men, meets at YAC every month, as does the "Delta Pearls," a mentoring group for young women organized by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
And Project LEAD, a coalition to reduce alcohol and substance abuse in Leavenworth County has just started up.
"Just anything we think is going to help families and kids and give them something to do," says Gregor.
But staying busy isn't a guarantee of financial security in this economy. The YAC, not un-like the United Way which is one of their main funders, is receiving half the amount of funding it received just five years ago.
"A lot of the smaller grants that used to support this have dried up and gone away," says Gregor.
She said, "The community needs to understand there is no secure funding for the Youth Achievement Center. So many times people come in here and think that we're funded through the city, or the county, or the state. We're not. The Youth Achievement Center has to raise all the money that supports the facility and the programs."
And right now, according to Gregor, that means encouraging the community to support the United Way's annual fundraising drive.
If you're interested in the Youth Support Program's after-school program, or other YAC activities, more information is available on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Youth-Achievement-Center/104921599551458.