Seattle’s Central District is a lot different than it was when Denisha Dunston was growing up. The Red Apple grocery store, the gas stations she used to ride by, and the corner stores she used to walk to are all gone. The district, once majority Black, has been redeveloped and less than a third of its residents today are Black.

“My whole childhood is gone,” Dunston said.

But while Dunston has happy memories in the district, her childhood was tough at times. Dunston was raised by her aunt and her father because her mother, now sober, was using drugs at the time and couldn’t take care of Dunston. Struggling to find a path forward during her teen years, she became pregnant at 17 and found herself jumping from couch to couch and spending hours on the bus just to get warm.

“It’s been rough growing up without a mom; you’re just a lost little soul,” Dunston said. “I didn’t have any goals, I didn’t know what to do in my life, I didn’t know about the world.”

That’s when Dunston came with a friend to Atlantic Street Center for the first time.

Atlantic Street Center, which served about 1,700 people in 2020, has been offering services to South Seattle since 1910. The organization supports children and families — particularly Black, Indigenous and people of color — with everything from kinship care to behavioral health counseling to early learning and assistance for those experiencing domestic violence. Atlantic Street Center is one of 13 nonprofit social-support agencies that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.

Dunston had been to the center in the past to support a friend. She remembered the kindness of the staff — particularly Michelle Mitchell-Brannon, director of youth development and education support at Atlantic Street Center.

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Mitchell-Brannon felt an instant connection to Dunston. Not only had Mitchell-Brannon seen many young women come through Atlantic Street Center’s doors, her own story is similar to Dunston’s: her mother wasn’t a stable presence in her life, so after becoming homeless and a ward of Arizona state, she was mostly raised by her relatives.

A few months later, Dunston came back. She admitted to Mitchell-Brannon that she was pregnant and she needed help.

She started calling Mitchell-Brannon “auntie” soon after — although by the end of their journey, she would call her “Mama Michelle.”

Settlement house mentality

Atlantic Street Center was founded as the “Deaconess Settlement” in 1910, when two women from a training school in Queen Anne started traveling to the Rainier Valley to teach English to Italians and other immigrants living there, according to a Seattle Times article from 1951. What started under a tent with classes, a Sunday school and free nursing soon became one of Seattle’s first kindergartens, a deaconess named Elizabeth Swift told The Seattle Times. 

“The neighborhood was a center of much juvenile delinquency in the early days,” Swift said. “But the workers, believing young folk there were little different from those elsewhere, set up a program to keep them busy during leisure hours throughout the week.”

Swift said police credited the Deaconess Settlement with a reduction of “youthful violators of the law” in the area.

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By the 1950s, the children of those immigrants who had learned English were coming back to learn the languages of their parents and do other after-school activities — now to a renamed “Atlantic Street Center” in a new building at 2103 S. Atlantic St., where the headquarters remain to this day. 

Eventually, Black families replaced the European immigrants who lived in South Seattle, only to now be pushed out by the increase in housing prices and other forces of gentrification. And as South Seattle has changed, Atlantic Street Center has, too.

The center has expanded from educational and extracurricular to clinical spheres. There is still after-school tutoring, service learning programs and financial literacy groups, and there’s also a counseling program where youth learn valuable social and emotional skills through video games, a counseling internship, and gender-based violence services including housing support, short-term therapy and support groups. 

Pela Terry, who was hired as the organization’s new executive director earlier this year, was drawn to Atlantic Street from work at bigger organizations on the East Coast because of the nonprofit’s “grassroots familial spirit.” Terry grew up in inner-city Chicago and said organizations like Atlantic Street saved her from early pregnancy, substance use and even death.

“That settlement house sort of mentality, really just rolling up your sleeves and helping those in need — that has transcended through the legacy of Atlantic Street Center,” Terry said.

Other staff at Atlantic Street Center have deep roots in the community. Teresa Everett, director of public relations and resource development, has worked at Atlantic Street for 21 years. When she arrived, there were only 16 families in the nonprofit’s ParentChild+ program, whose goal is to help bridge the early learning gap in low-income families by providing specialists and programs for kids while their parents are at work.

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There are now 130 families in the program, she said.

“We’ve shifted to meet the needs of our families in the community,” said Everett. “But our mission remains the same, and that’s to help our families.”

But the families are moving, pressed out of South Seattle and farther into South King County. Everett, herself — a longtime Seattleite, like Dunston and Mitchell-Brannon — couldn’t find a house she could afford in the city, and bought one in Federal Way.

“It has been a major shift, much like probably when the Italian immigrants moved out,” Everett said. “Now us African Americans are moving out, and I don’t know what Seattle is going to look like.”

So Atlantic Street Center has “reached out its arms” around the Puget Sound, Terry said, building a site in Rainier Beach and Kent and serving families even in neighboring counties.

“We have to transcend just the street here by I-90,” Terry said. “No matter where you are, you’re part of this family.”

Atlantic Street Center | Fund For Those in Need

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Atlantic Street Center provides education, mental health and support services to children and families. Its work ranges from counseling and home visits to parenting classes for teens, literacy programs and helping families find available public services. The agency primarily serves low-income families of color in central and south Seattle. For more information: atlanticstreetcenter.org

$25: provides one week’s supply of baby formula for a family.

$50: provides one month of bus tokens or ORCA pass for youth/young teen parent to get to work, school, and or other errands such as doctor’s appointments.

$100: provides an evening’s worth of hot nutritious meals for all the teens and children at the weekly Teens as Parents Program support group.

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Checklist finished

When Dunston came back to Atlantic Street Center, Mitchell-Brannon sat down with her and made a checklist, like she does with every new client.

First and foremost, Dunston needed a stable place to stay; then a doctor for prenatal care; help for her baby’s father to get a job; and a steady supply of food and formula for her baby. Then, further down the checklist, the big goals: Dunston wanted to go back to school and get her high school diploma, explore careers, get good at managing her money and learn how to be the mother she didn’t have.

Mitchell-Brannon connected her to housing with the YMCA, a doctor — and, after the birth, counseling services for postpartum depression — helped Dunston sign up for food stamps and family cash assistance from the state, and signed her up for the center’s classes on financial literacy and workshops on career skills. Dunston obtained her high school diploma, completed a barista training program at the Orion Center; and then Atlantic Street Center paid for her to get her flaggers’ license and she got a job as a union flagger.

“I didn’t empower her, I enabled her to unlock her own power,” Mitchell-Brannon said. “I’m telling you what you see today is not who I met. That young lady is not the same young lady.”

When Dunston had to take in her younger sister, Atlantic Street was there to support her with school, clothing, and anything she needed.

But Mitchell-Brannon slowly became family for Dunston, too. She answered her phone any time Dunston called, day or night. As Dunston’s son John got older, Mitchell-Brannon would read him her favorite book, “When the Crayons Quit,” and do different voices for each crayon.

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Now, Dunston volunteers at the center and helps organize events for other young moms with Mitchell-Brannon. In fact, Atlantic Street just hired her as a parent support specialist.

“I was a little lost soul until I met this amazing woman,” Dunston said. “She nurtured me. She guided me.”

It’s relationships like these that are at the core of what Atlantic Street Center does, said Terry, the executive director.

“Mentorship is leadership,” Terry said. “It’s about how do we all become leaders to help people in need? It’s a pipeline.”