PYAC's Eddie Van Vlack

Eddie Van Vlack found positive influences in athletics as a youngster, so it's not a surprise that his PYAC office's walls are covered with photos of sports teams he's coached in the past.

Eddie Van Vlack doesn't hold anything back when he's trying to get a message across to people.

As the executive director of the Philomath Youth Activities Club, he'll share his own personal, painful memories to set the scene, and then follow with positive influences that led to his life as a productive adult.

Those types of positive outcomes are what the PYAC hopes to accomplish here in Philomath.

"I think we have a tendency within Philomath because of the social economics and the nature of being a bedroom community, we kinda think that every kid is our kid and that they've got it made," Van Vlack said. "I'm telling you right now, I see firsthand every single day that is not the case."

PYAC has a variety of activities for youth and not just athletics. Girls Circle, for example, is a support group that covers various topics designed to build self-esteem and develop relationships.

"There are kids in our programs that are exactly from the situations that I was in when I was a kid," Van Vlack said. "When I see that, I know that somebody has to be there ... and I'm not reaching all of them and certainly not all of them need us to reach them. But if we can reach one or two a year, and make the difference."

Van Vlack, who started with PYAC in 1996, talked Dec. 1 at the organization's annual fund program about positive youth development. He has shared his story at past programs, including the very first one back in 1997. Knowing its impact, some of the organization's board members that have been around a while asked him to share it again.

Through his talk, Van Vlack brought together his life story, positive youth development strategies and important messages through "Oh, the Places You'll Go," a Dr. Seuss classic that illustrates the journey that life takes a young child on.

"When you get to know people and get to know their story and what motivates them, that makes us better human beings," Van Vlack said. "It makes us better friends, makes us better fathers."

That's why Van Vlack puts himself out there in front of everybody.

"What I've gone through in my life is very critical to the path of why I'm sitting at this desk right now and why I believe so strongly in our organization and the programs that we have to offer," Van Vlack said.

Van Vlack talked about an unstable childhood with a father addicted to alcohol and drugs. As a result, the family never stayed in one place very long.

"In all, from the time I was in the fifth grade to the time that I graduated high school, we lived in 42 different places," Van Vlack said, adding that those residences included apartments, camp trailers and on couches with family and friends.

"As a kid, I remember going from convenience store to convenience store buying 3-cent candies with food stamps so that we could get the change so mom and dad could pay the rent or buy cigarettes or drugs," Van Vlack said. "I will never forget hiding behind the couch one night when my father came home drunk from a Christmas party and beat up both my mom and my older brother."

Those are strong images to put in someone's mind. And they are very personal memories to share to get a point across.

"I certainly don't share that story because I want you to look down on me with sympathy," he said. "I'm not trying to tear my parents down. My mom's got the biggest heart. She's 4-foot-3 and her whole body is heart and I love her to death. My dad's a different story. To this day, I'm still trying to work on a relationship there because I think it's important, but it's hard for me to wrap my mind around how can you be a father and make the decisions that he made that led to the lifestyle that we lived ... that's a really hard one for me."

After the Dec. 1 program, Van Vlack said four or five people came up to him and shared their own personal situations that they had to overcome.

"I think there's an important element of being vulnerable in today's society that we don't always do," Van Vlack said. "We always want to put on our tough outer shell and when you're vulnerable, you realize that's when we can make an impact and make a difference in people's lives."

PYAC's roots date back to March 1989 when it started a summer baseball program through a temporary association with the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis. By 1994, PYAC obtained independent tax-exempt status as a nonprofit corporation.

In 1999, PYAC began a campaign to build a permanent home and doors to the current facility opened in 2001.

Van Vlack's message is reflected in PYAC's mission, which in part reads, "We use a very 'common sense' approach to youth development. Simply put, we believe the more positive assets youth possess, the less likely they will be to get involved with risk-taking behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, crime or early sexual activity."

Van Vlack said, "I'd say at any given time, there could be 20 percent of our participants in any program that are in dire need of direction and self-esteem development."

Asked to define positive youth development, Van Vlack compared past and present.

"I think it's important to understand that the term came from a paradigm shift from the old way of doing things. Like when I was a kid, kids made mistakes, they always will, whether it was drinking and driving, inappropriate sexual relations, whatever. And we would say, 'OK, we'll develop programs to address those specific areas.

"Positive youth development is kids are all going to go through adolescence, we know that," he added. "So rather than waiting for them to make the mistakes of navigating adolescence, let's try to develop programming and understand what are the factors or variables that we can introduce to the equation that will help them avoid those mistakes."

PYAC serves children of all ages, but the positive youth development strategies target those in the 10 to 15 age group.

"We're obviously not the inner city; we don't have tons of homeless youth and all that stuff, but there are dire needs right here in Philomath from a youth standpoint of kids trying to navigate the adolescent years," he said.

"I think we forget as adults how treacherous that period of time is of going through adolescence and how many changes, cognitive changes, physical changes, and I think as parents specifically, if we know that information, it helps us be better parents," he added. "Parenting's the most difficult damn job we do. We're just handed a kid and it's good luck."

Another part of the equation involves relationships with caring adults. For Van Vlack, coaches played a key role in his development. For someone else, it may have been a Cub Scout leader, teacher or a friend's parent.

Van Vlack said he'd like to think that several of the children who come to the youth center and interact with staff such as Sarah Woosley, associate director, and Alexandra Barone, lead teacher and youth center assistant, come away with productive relationships during those three hours every day.

"Just knowing there's somebody outside their parents that cares for them and believes in them," he said.

Van Vlack wants the community to know that PYAC is more than a sports organization.

"When I first started at PYAC, there was no question we were a youth sports organization, that's what we did," Van Vlack said. "And we still do that and that's what people know us for. But I've worked hard, it's been my mission to create a staff and for people to really understand that we are a positive youth development organization."

PYAC relies upon donations and volunteers, but Van Vlack during his presentation took it one step further.

"We all have interactions with adolescents, whether they're our kids or our friends' kids or through church or whatever it is," he said. "There are ways that you can have an impact by just acknowledging and engaging those kids. ... Just having any kind of interaction with adolescents and making sure that you're positive in those interactions, smiling at them, talking to them. It may sound like little tiny things, but I think it goes a long way."

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