KWC's Youth Space

Mall traffic moves past the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition's Youth Space on Jan 14 at The Plaza mall. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Maria Naclerio had a goal of finding new ways to support local youth when she came to the First City this fall for a position with the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition.

Originally from California, Naclerio arrived in Ketchikan by way of Duke University.

Soon after her arrival in Ketchikan, she went to work establishing a youth leadership program and after-school recreation space.

"I'm an AmeriCorps Vista, and that was kind of the purpose of me coming here," Naclerio said about the programs. "And shortly after I came here, I kind of realized that there is a kind of gap missing in after-school programming, particularly for high school students in Ketchikan," Naclerio told the Daily News in a recent interview. "They didn't really have a space to go after school that was safe and monitored, so we kind of wanted to fill that gap and create an open space for high schools to hang out."

That led her to develop not only the student-driven Ketchikan Youth Alliance program, but also open a new recreational space in The Plaza mall designed for — and guided by the leadership of — high school students.

"It was definitely kind of a slow start," Naclerio recalled. "We really wanted it to be built entirely by the youth, so I led a focus group with some teens from Kayhi, and they kind of helped develop the infrastructure of the group."

The alliance's first meeting drew about four teens, but by the next meeting, 10 youth were in attendance. The group's ranks soon "blossomed" to 20, according to Naclerio.

"We have about 15 kids that come on a regular basis to those meetings, and then outside of that group it kind of varies," Naclerio said.

The youth space opened in October, but had its official debut — featuring a new paint job and decorations — in early January. It is open daily after school hours for all high school students.

The continuing pandemic was "the biggest barrier" to opening the area, Naclerio said.

The space follows EOC guidelines, and also corresponds to the school district's Smart Start plan. So when schools are limiting in-person learning, the space also reduces capacity.

"We have snacks, we have games, we have Netflix, we have a Wii, we're just trying to make it, like, the most engaging place possible for teens to come hang out and do their homework and do whatever else in a safe atmosphere," Naclerio said.

Some days, only a small spattering of students frequent the space, while other days, it draws 10 or more teens.

Naclerio and the Ketchikan Youth Alliance also have developed programming for the space, such as popular yoga sessions or movie and game nights.

So those activities also bring in more students," Naclerio noted.

The KWC youth space schedule for February featured weekly Wednesday meetings of the Youth Alliance, as well as several art sessions — like mosaic making and a "paint and cocoa" night with the Vibrance art studio — a karaoke event, and game night.

Some of the youth attendees also were recently certified as teen mental health first aid responders through programming held weekly at the center during February.

Kayhi teachers visited the space to provide a few weeks of training about how to spot "red flags" in teen mental health, and upon completion of the lessons, participants earned their certifications.

About the KWC youth space, Naclerio said, "It's something that KWC didn't have before, and I'm really happy that I was able to come (and) kind of use my skills and my experience to help build this group up and work with other people in the community to try and address this need."