For more than six years, when teens on Grays Harbor have needed a safe place to stay, something to eat, or just someone to talk to, Erin Pankey has been the one to call. She’s available any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for teens through the Grays Harbor Youth Center, an Aberdeen program through Catholic Community Services.
Pankey doesn’t solve their problems for them; They learn to help themselves, with Pankey’s guidance through a myriad of services.
“I can direct them to a resource they didn’t know about,” she said.
Growing up on the plains
Pankey grew up in Talala, Okla., a town of about 600 people. The school setup was much like Westport/Ocosta, a K-12 space shared with neighboring Oologah.
Until, that is, the school “blew away” during a tornado in 1991, Pankey said. It was so close to the end of the school year, the governor cancelled the rest of the year, she recalled.
“We still celebrate — In April, it was the anniversary,” Pankey said. “It was a big deal. We were always taught to have pride in our school and our town, and now we didn’t have a school.”
But there was still room for school pride: Many students, including Pankey, pitched in to clear rubble and help rebuild.
“Other kids, if they were working age, actually got jobs helping rebuild the school,” she said.
Other than school, Pankey worked on her family’s 20-acre property caring for cows and horses.
“These days maybe every kid has an iPad. I was the oldest of six kids, we all had horses,” she said with a laugh. “That was our entertainment, grab the horse and go for a ride.”
Searching for a passion
Pankey attended five different colleges and tried on many different majors before she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in social work.
“Not one of them had a degree program for being taller — that’s all I really wanted to be,” she joked.
Advice from her father, a children’s psychiatric nurse, shaped what she was searching for.
“That’s the comment he always made, that he enjoyed his job and that was important — that people enjoy their job,” Pankey said. “I knew that whatever I wanted to do for the long-term was something I could have fun doing.”
For a while, she thought that might be education.
“I tried different jobs, while I’m going to school as well. I was a nanny for a little while, really enjoyed that job, so I knew having a job where I’m paid to play was really awesome,” Pankey recalled.
But with how changeable education policy can be, she decided to keep looking. She took some time off, working in an emergency room in Tulsa, Okla.
“I enjoyed working with the homeless people in there. I saw how they were treated by a lot of medical professionals … that were really burned out dealing with these people, felt like they were manipulating the system. But at the same time, they weren’t directing them to somewhere that could better serve their needs,” Pankey said.
She decided she would make it her mission to help the homeless in a “more compassionate” way.
While she worked for two years to finish her degrees, some of her professors encouraged her to take classes on working with kids.
Pankey said she took a few, and went to a few seminars, but mostly, “I said, ‘No, I’m going to work with homeless adults.’ And now I work with kids,” she said.
“A lot of the times the kids are a heck of a lot more mature than some of the adults I’ve worked with. They have to be sometimes. I work with a lot of strong, brave children.”
Falling in love
Pankey started working with Catholic charities at a maternity home where she helped homeless young women.
“I taught them life skills and nutrition skills while they were living at the home,” she explained. “We prepared them for real life, on how to be a mom when they leave and made sure they have a home to go to when they leave.”
“I enjoyed that work very much, all of those girls are still in touch with me today,” Pankey said. “I come from a very large family, but it grows every day, because my clients are always talking to me about their lives and these kids are always in touch with me. … They always keep in touch, they never go away.”
When she was close to graduation, she started to make a list of places she might like to live and work. When she visited Lacey on vacation, “I fell in love with the State of Washington.”
Pankey toured the state, talking with charitable organizations, searching for the right fit.
“I wanted to live in the Northwest. It was just a goal,” she said.
She credits Jim Anderson, who works for Catholic Community Services in Tacoma, for selling her on the organization and teaching her about her future home.
“He should be on some kind of little show that tells you anything you need to know about Washington, or Catholic Community Services. He just sold me on Catholic Community Services and all the different services this community has,” she said.
The needs of the teens that come through the Youth Center are diverse as the teens themselves. Some need a baby bed, replacement clothes when they’ve outgrown theirs, ways to move out of the area or attend a different school or advice on how to deal with landlords.
Pankey is there for all of it.
“It goes from one extreme to the next. We’ve had kids come to us and there’s four or five people living in a one-bedroom efficiency. Who’s going to do homework in a place like that?” she said. “If they want to be loud and they want to get crazy, they can get crazy. If they say, ‘Erin, I need to just scream at you,’ they can scream at me.”
“Some have no place to go. Mom and Dad have literally thrown them away,” Pankey said. “At times I am kind of a big sister to them, I guess.”
Most days, the job is rewarding, but it’s not always easy.
“My job’s not always loveable. It’s a little stressful. It saddens my heart when the kids have to go through the struggles that they do. But when they tell me thank you, that’s like the best. And when they’re proud of themselves, that’s even better,” Pankey said.
She’s not shy about bragging about the kids when they’ve met their goals. For some, the praise may not be an experience they get elsewhere.
Jessica Pratt, 19, is a former resident at the shelter about to earn her degree in accounting, but too young to work as a volunteer with other teens. The minimum age is 21.
“Erin saved my life more than once. Oftentimes, this was the only place that I had to go, and then even when I had somewhere else to stay I still hung out here all the time, because it was like home,” Pratt said.
“She’s very grown up. She’s about to get her bachelor’s degree at 19, she’ll take on any job possible, and she comes and volunteers here with me all the time,” Pankey said with pride.
“I try to pay it forward, if I have things to donate, I bring them in,” Pratt said with a modest shrug.
“She is something to brag about,” Pankey said.
Pankey is a resource for teens to figure out how to reach their goals, but she doesn’t set goals or do the work for them.
“They set their goals and we cheer them along and we help direct them to the places they need to go to get their goals done,” she said.
Some of the community connections are made through Catholic Community Services, others come from Pankey herself, knocking on doors and finding new ways to get things done for the teens who need her help.
“I have no patience. I have none. So any red tape to get anything done for any child here, that’s the most frustrating. … That’s the most frustrating, when they need my help and I can’t get it done as quickly as possible. My magic wand doesn’t always work,” she said.
Between her work locally, the charity’s resources regionally, and information she has about other recipients of federal grants they use, Pankey can help a teen who wants to get most anywhere.
“If I know where a better program is that fits them and the Harbor isn’t any longer a place where they feel the support that they need, I’ll connect them with the place that they need to go,” she said.
The number of teens using the center at any one time varies widely, Pankey said, but usually there’s about 20-30 at any one time. More than 100 keep in touch, though they may not use the center’s services anymore.
“Not one of them has quit talking to me,” she said. “We let them know, even though we found you an apartment, you have furniture, you still have us. You’ll always have us.”
All about the kids
Dameon Sindelair, 18, said that for a long time, he would come to the center for a place to cool off after a fight with his dad or a place to stay when he was kicked out. Sometimes, he needed somewhere to do his laundry, or he was just running short of food at home.
“I’d come down here and Erin would let me eat,” he said.”A couple times I didn’t have a place to stay. … It’s been a big help having Erin here.”
Now that he’s 18, he can’t stay overnight, but he can visit during the day, get advice and some clothes or things for his apartment. He’s currently applying for a job.
Sindelair said Pankey has helped him “more than I’d be able to imagine. I used to come here like every night for like two years. If I wasn’t coming here, I’d probably be doing something out on the streets. It gave me something constructive to do.”
Lily Weaver, 17, is expecting a baby, and Pankey helps her find clothing and a place to stay.
“It saved me from hotels a lot,” Weaver said.
Pankey also helped Weaver make an education plan so she would stay in school through her pregnancy.
“When school’s in session, they need to go to school,” Pankey said of the teens who come to the center.
Asked how she was coping with all the changes in her life, Weaver said, “Better. (Erin) and I talked and she gave me positive advice.”
It helps to have someone who’s there and ready to help at any time of day, Weaver added.
“I didn’t have any bus money or any way to get food. Erin was the one there to help,” she said.
When kids need to stay overnight, in one of the six beds in three rooms — America-, Northwest- or dragon-themed, based on choices from teens — Pankey said the only up-front requirement is that they be a teenager. There won’t be an interview or paperwork before they can come in out of the cold. They can stay as long as 21 days at a time.
“We have 72 hours to get parents’ permission, so they can take their time and tell me their story,” Pankey said.
Ways to help
Asked what donations the center could use, Pankey doesn’t hesitate.
“Socks. We are really low on socks right now,” she said. Donations of any size clothing are also welcome.
“Kids come in all shapes and sizes,” Pankey said.
For their street outreach kits, they could also use sunscreen, bug wipes and miniature First Aid kits. Food donations are also welcome.
Home Depot is currently building an all-weather donation box to sit outside the center, so people can donate at any time.
“They won’t even have to knock on our door,” Pankey said. For now, though, people interested in ways to help should call or text message Pankey at the center’s 24-hour youth hotline number, 360-589-3259.
Monetary donations may be made on Catholic Community Services’ Website, http://bit.ly/11Pc1FZ, or by mail with a form available for download here: http://bit.ly/11QcsRc. For more information about making a gift, call 206-328-5707 or email email@example.com.