Mentoring 800 at-risk Alaskan Youth through sports


     March is always a difficult time for the people of Interior Alaska.  They have just come through the teeth of winter with temperatures of -40 degrees and 20 hours of darkness per day.  The snow that arrived in September is still on the ground and has been adding up for the past six months. Many of them are just ready to be done with winter and move on to spring/summer.  The calendar says that spring begins this month.  The sun is out longer and actually warms up the days considerably.  There are days, weeks even, when the temperature is above freezing and everyone is walking around in shorts and t-shirts.  There is a palpable optimism that this year will be an early spring and that winter is behind us.

     Those of us who have been here for a while know that winter is still here and will remain through April.  We know that the days of temperate weather will be intermingled with snowstorms and freezing rain and sudden temperature drops.  30 above can turn into 30 below within a day or two.

     I say this not to be discouraging, but to remind people of the climate that we live in.  People get really mad in March and April because the snow and the cold refuse to go away.  This happens every year, but it still takes people by surprise.

     When you work with high-risk youth, there is the temptation to see them as happy and fixed because they are doing so well at the Youth Center.  They follow the rules, are fun and engaging, and they blossom before your eyes.  And then they do something stupid.  They break something; they take something; they start yelling or crying or fighting for no good reason.  And then you remember that this is the climate that we live in.  Their home life has not changed.  Their school situation has not changed.  They are still just one accident, one bad choice, one party away from being a teenager in crisis.  They may spend six hours per day at Joel's Place...but that leaves 18 hours per day in other environments that may not be as encouraging or hopeful.  Our kids are great and it is a tough world out there.

     Thank you for your role in providing Joel's Place to the teens of Interior Alaska.  It is within these walls that we are able to help our 1,100 visitors develop the resources that they need to survive and thrive.  It is at Joel's Place that they are able to learn conflict resolution and patience and winning/losing with grace and money management and hope and so many other valuable lessons. 

     Summer is not here...but it is coming.  Our kids are not in a healthy place yet...but that is coming too.  Thank you again for helping make Joel's Place a reality.


     The winters of Alaska, even as mild as this one has been, are cold and dark and long.  I have three kids of my own and I know very well how antsy they get when they are cooped up in the house for too long.  Joel's Place Youth Center has been a great release valve for teens over the past decade.  They can get out of the house to eat or Skate/BMX/Scooter or attend a concert or just hang out and run around with their friends in a warm and safe location.  However it is all inside and I firmly believe that kids, especially Alaskan kids, miss out on something important if they are not outside during our winters.

     The past couple of years we have done a fair amount of work on the outside of our facility.  We reinsulated the building, paved the parking lot, put up fencing around our property, set up a community garden, fire pit, sand volleyball court and basketball court.  However none of those elements addressed the "Go spend quality time outdoors in the winter," concern.  This coming Saturday Joel's Place is excited to announce the opening of our Outdoor Snow Park.  We have ramps and rails and lots and lots of snow.  This area is designed by skaters to facilitate snowboarding, snowskating and sledding for young people of all ages.  We are really eager to see the kids play.

     Have you heard of snowboarding and sledding but not snowskating?  Welcome to the cutting edge of youth popular culture!  A snowskate is like a marriage of a snowboard and a skateboard.  The deck is smaller than a snowboard and the feet are not strapped in but the bottom of the deck is smooth with no wheels.  The snowskate allows for greater control and a greater variety of tricks than the snowboard, especially tricks that require flipping the board during jumps.  So now you know. 

     Saturday the 13th of December will be our launch party, sponsored by Gripall.  From 4-8pm we will have music, food, prizes, and lots of outdoor fun.  If you are around, feel free to swing by.  If not, thank you for your support and encouragement as we continue to find new ways to invest in the lives of Interior Alaska's youth.



In the past twelve months, Joel's Place has served 6,520 meals for free to the youth of our community.  We are members of a couple of USDA programs (the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program for those of you who were curious) that will reimburse our organization for after-school meals that we provide to teenagers and young children in high-risk neighborhoods.  This reimbursement allows us to employ our phenomenal kitchen staff, purchase food and cover other cooking expenses.  The meals are hot, nutritious and did I mention free?  Some of the food that we serve fits into what they eat every day: spaghetti, pizza, etc.  However some of the meals push our kids a little bit.  Chicken stir-fry with veggies is delicious...once you are able to get over the fact that you are eating vegetables.  The goal of the program is to both give healthy meals to youth who may not be getting enough to eat at home and to teach positive nutrition habits through trying new foods or familiar foods prepared in different ways.


Food is a huge issue among kids in America, especially Alaska.  Many school-age kids are underfed...the meal that they have here at Joel's Place may be the only food they have during the day.  Hungry kids are bad students.  They are unresponsive.  They have horrible social skills.  Hungry kids do not think about the future because they are wrapped up in finding something to eat.  Hungry kids will eat anything...especially if it is quick and easy and cheap.  Hello, Fast Food and Vending Machines.  Childhood obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in our state.  Kids are eating a ton of empty calories and suffering serious health problems as a result.  It is so easy in Alaska to just stay indoors all winter and be sedentary and a lot of youth just get bigger and bigger and bigger as the years go on.


Fighting obesity requires 3 things: Healthy Food, Exercise and Mentoring/Education.  Joel's Place provides all three.  Our meals are USDA certified.  The skate park allows year round exercise and training.  Our staff will sell you a candy bar from the front desk, but they will also accompany you into the cafe to have dinner and make sure you clean your plate.  We had several community members teach afternoon courses this summer on healthy eating and nutrition.  In the two years that I have been on this job, there are a handful of boys who I have met who began coming to Joel's Place as roly-poly little guys. They have skated; they have grown; they have eaten well and now they are big, healthy young men.  I am really proud of that and hope I get to see that story played out over and over again.


3,520.  That is a really good number.


     Summer is usually a sad time around Joel's Place.  The kids are off having fun other places, the staff are bored and the bills are piling up.  In spite of the sunlight, summer is usually the darkest time for the youth center in both activity and mood.

     But not this year.

     The transformation began last year as we paved and fenced in our parking lot, allowing us to have a usable (and skateable) outdoor area.  Fairbanks Youth Sports donated funds to purchase some high qualtiy mobile ramps.  Volunteers came by to build ramps or work in our garden or set up our basketball and volleyball courts.  We set aside times for kids to ride their scooters.  This year we received generous contributions from Conoco Phillips and the Fred Meyer Foundation for the express purpose of offering free skating to the youth of our community for the summer.  The awards cover what we would have earned by charging our normal rates for membership and skate lessons; since we are receiving the money from elsewhere, we can offer everything at Joel's Place for no money at all!

     The response to this program has been tremendous.  Meals served have increased by 48% from this time last year.  Our park usage has increased 254% from last year.  Kids play inside, they play outside, they paint things, they play games, they learn job skills and life skills.  We are not only busier than during a normal summer; we are also busier than several of our winter months during the school year. 

     Later on this summer we will be putting on "Joelstock," a 10 hour music festival right here on the grounds as we continue to celebrate summer at Joel's Place.  Our ride team will be touring the state in late July and we will be hosting a booth at the fair in early August before diving into the new school year.

     This is an epic summer we are engaged in.  A summer full of kids and crashes and laughter and new opportunities.  It is the best form of chaos to be surrounded by and we are here because of your generosity and support.  Thank you for your generosity and encouragement as we move forward.

Looking forward to many, many more epic summers,



     March is a funny time in Fairbanks.  We are rapidly gaining sunlight, snow is melting and streets are clearing.  Every year the sunlight and the warm temperatures (rocketing up to the forties!) make people believe that we are having an early spring.  Every year.  Without fail we will have another really cold spell of below zero temperatures and blowing snow.  It happens every year and it always takes people by surprise.  However, even if we are not having an early spring, the weather does indicate that we are out of the throes of winter.  We have turned a corner towards spring and summer.  We are not there yet, but we are now headed in that direction.


     Simlarly, Joel's Place is turning a corner.  We have a full Board of Directors for the first time in years and they are utilizing their skills, passions and connections to grow this organization.  We are hiring new staff to create programs to invest in the growth and maturation of our youth while they are having a ton of fun in our park.  We are launching Snowskating at Joel's Place:  A cross between skateboarding and snowboarding, snowskating will set up in our fenced yard area and provide a great outdoor recreation alternative for our athletes.  We have people and organizations from across the community initiating to volunteer or provide food or play music or sponsor youth. 


     We are not completely stable yet; we continue to struggle with paying staff and bills on time.  We still need to upgrade our equipment and facilities to create a safer and more fun environment.  We need to build our partnership base throughout the community and we have some major debts on the horizon.  We are not stable yet, but we are on our way.  We have turned a corner and can see the goal in front of us.  It will not be long before our finances are sustainable, our staff is well trained, our building is high quality, and the teenagers who come through here have a blast playing both indoors and outdoors while finding mentors and developing vision and resources for their futures.


     We are not there yet, but it is coming soon.  And you are a significant part of turning that corner.  Thank you for your generosity, your support and all the ways that you have invested in the youth of our community.  We are blessed to have you as a partner.


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Project Leader

James Menaker

Executive Director
Fairbanks, Alaska United States

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