Flash back to the early 1990s in Tacoma. Gang violence ran rampant in many parts of the city, and there were few places outside of school for youth to spend their time in productive ways. YMCA Executive Director Phil Carter had seen enough, and was inspired to make a change – a real change that could make a difference in the community. He wanted to provide a safe space for teens to come together, have fun and simply spend time in a positive environment. Along with the help of Charles Carson, who worked at the time for Tacoma’s Safe Streets program, the idea of YMCA’s Late Nite program was born. Since then, each YMCA in Pierce and Kitsap counties has become a hot spot for teens on Friday nights to get to know each other, socialize, play sports and more – all in a safe and fun environment.
“We needed a place for kids to go during these times, regardless of their ability to pay,” Carter said. “Late Nite has become a chance to expose kids to an environment they may not have experienced before.”
The program takes place at YMCA branches from 9:30-11:30 p.m., and is open to the community free of charge. Carter is proud to say local law enforcement officers have seen a decrease in crime rates during these times since Late Nite started. “The next goal is to provide programs for kids between the hours of 3-7 p.m.,” he said. “We have a lot of members who come in during those hours, but we need programs that are open to everyone. That is the next goal.”
Some of the biggest draws at the Morgan Family YMCA, where Carter currently serves as executive director, is a chance to take over the basketball courts, and the gymnastics room for parkour training. This craze combines movements focused on overcoming a variety of obstacles by running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, leaping and rolling. At Carter’s YMCA, gymnastics equipment allows teens to leap over balance beams, flip on trampolines, swing on poles and more.
At some point during the night, all the teens are gathered together for a prayer or message from a featured speaker. “This is a very special part of the program,” Carter added. “It’s important to make sure there is a chance for everyone to come together and listen to a positive message of some kind.”
Each Friday, the Morgan Family Y serves anywhere from 80 to 150 teens, and approximately 1,500 youth participate in a Late Nite program at other YMCA locations nearby. At least eight staff members are on duty during these hours, along with a number of volunteers and mentors.
Many mentors and volunteers have experienced the program themselves, according to Toby Roberts, marketing and communications director for the YMCA. “Years ago, we had a troubled teen come through our program, and when he reached his early 20s, he came back to us as a mentor,” Roberts said. “That kind of story means so much to us, because it gives purpose to our work. It says we’re making a positive impact on our community, and that’s what the Y is here to do.”
The program has grown to offer a scholarship to help teens pursuing higher education. “I was originally hoping to get these kids through high school with the Late Nite program,” Carter said. “This scholarship program really takes it to another level.”
For more information about Late Nite, or to donate to the program, visit http://www.ymcapkc.org/daonte/strong-kids.