Dec. 1 marked the 20th anniversary of the first residents' move into Watson Manor, a transitional-housing facility for young, homeless mothers and their children. It is owned by Kent Youth and Family Services, which also provides early-childhood education, mental-health and chemical-dependency counseling and after-school programs. Kent Youth and Family Services is one of 13 agencies...

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Lanelle Ava, her 2-year-old son, Tre, in tow, proudly showed off her two-bedroom, second-floor apartment in Kent, with its bare walls, sparse furnishings and tiny porch overlooking a row of mature trees.

“This is our lovely home. We love this place so much,” said Ava, a 22-year-old single mom who until recently was homeless. “This is a great opportunity for me to get my life together, to get my dreams going, you know? This is our practice launching pad.”

Merriah Sample can relate. Fifteen years ago, she was able to make a fresh start after she and her 5-month-old daughter moved into the same building.

The 10-unit apartment building called Watson Manor “gave me stability, safety and opportunity” to pursue an education, said Sample, who earned degrees from Highline Community College and Central Washington University, followed by a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington. “It got me on my feet.”

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Dec. 1 marked the 20th anniversary of the first residents’ move into Watson Manor, a transitional-housing facility for young, homeless mothers and their children. It is owned by Kent Youth and Family Services, a 41-year-old agency that also provides early-childhood education, mental-health and chemical-dependency counseling and after-school programs to thousands of children and young people, primarily those living in the Kent School District.

Kent Youth and Family Services is one of 13 agencies supported by The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy. Last year, Times readers contributed $926,069 to the fund, which has raised more than $14 million since it was established in 1979, with 100 percent of the donations going to services to children, families and seniors.

Kent Youth and Family Services was founded by Mary and Brooks Loops in 1970 after the suicide of their son, Keith, who overdosed on drugs, said Mike Heinisch, agency executive director.

From its grass-roots beginnings as a volunteer organization staffed by parents and teachers worried about the impact of drugs on the city’s youth, Kent Youth and Family Services now has 100 employees and an annual budget of $3.7 million, Heinisch said. Drug and alcohol counseling remains a big part of its mission, with 100 kids, some as young as 11, receiving treatment at any given time, he said. Many are referred by the King County juvenile-justice system.

“We have pretty good luck with our kids — about 85 percent finish their treatment,” Heinisch said.

A team of 20 therapists provides mental-health counseling to 300 to 400 young people, many of them traumatized by sexual and physical abuse, as well as domestic violence and substance abuse in their homes, he said.

The agency also offers early-childhood education and after-school programs aimed at getting “kids through school and hopefully on to college or into technical training,” Heinisch said. He said 138 languages are spoken in the Kent School District, making it one of the state’s most diverse communities and one of the youngest, with an average age of 30.

The city’s large immigrant and refugee population “wants to contribute to our country, to our communities,” he said. “As a county, if we don’t provide opportunity for people who are here, we’re missing a huge opportunity to have a motivated workforce.”

Tough place to start

Then there are the young mothers who live at Watson Manor. The majority are American-born, and many are women of color.

“This is the most disenfranchised population I can imagine — you’re 17, maybe you have a criminal record, you dropped out of school and you’re living in a car because you have no place to go. And you have a kid,” Heinisch said. “I can’t imagine a worse place to start from.”

Some of the young moms are escaping domestic violence, gangs or pimps, and some are battling their own mental-health and drug issues, he said. Residents typically come from backgrounds devoid of family structure and support.

By teaching mothers parenting, financial and other life skills — while helping them find work and an education — the hope is to give them and their babies the best possible shot at stability and self-sufficiency.

Open to mothers 16 to 25, residents can stay at Watson Manor up to two years; 80 percent graduate from the program and move into permanent housing.

Ava and her son moved in a couple of months ago. Her long-term goals are still fuzzy, but she dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. In the short term, Ava — who attends Seattle Bible College while Tre goes to a Montessori day care — wants to pay off thousands of dollars in debt and clean up her credit, which was destroyed, she said, “by reckless living.”

“This is a good time for me to be responsible, to get serious about things,” said Ava, who is living on food stamps and state assistance. “I don’t want this one to go through what I went through,” Ava said, nodding to her son as he helped himself to a pear from the fridge. “I want him to have something better, to do things he dreams of and can actually make possible.”

Giving back

Sample, who witnessed her mother’s alcohol abuse and violent relationship with a boyfriend, said getting pregnant at 20 with her daughter, Aryana, prompted her to end her own unhealthy relationship with her child’s father.

“I remember when I found out I was pregnant, I went from being a kid to a grown-up instantly. … My life and my focus immediately changed,” said Sample, who was homeless for part of her childhood, eventually moving into foster care. “I didn’t want my daughter to have the same sort of life I did.”

Sample, of Bothell, has been married to Spencer, an electrician, for 13 years. He adopted Aryana, now 16, and they have a 9-year-old son, Nate. Sample is a school counselor in Snohomish County and leads a girls youth group at her church.

“I think the thing I’m most proud of is I’ve been able to provide my children with such a loving, caring, stable environment — and then just really being able to give back to the community,” she said. “I work with lots of teens, I have relationships with lots of kids. My life’s work is working with children, mentoring and guiding” them.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or

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