Southside Youth Outreach: Heart & Leadership in a Changing Corvallis, by Victoria Saager

The back room of the building is a hub of laughter and conversation. Kids eat cheese and crackers at the tables, exhausted from a long day at school, and likely coated in a light dusting of playground dirt or sidewalk chalk. Most of them have just come from Lincoln Elementary down the block, which is proudly bilingual and serves a large community of migrant students. When the kids go home later that evening, they’ll be returning to a variety of unknown family situations.

Building strong young lives is the goal of Southside Youth Outreach, a non-profit in SouthTown, born out of SouthSide Community Church. I stumbled across Southside and started volunteering there myself a few years ago. What I didn’t predict was how much the organization would pour back into me. It’s an honor to be involved with a group that is so loving and excited for the future. Southside puts on a variety of programs to fill these kids up, and give them opportunities they wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.

“It’s more than just a babysitting service,” says employee Jacob McNamara, to describe the youth outreach. “We’re looking to invest in these kids and really help them, because whatever their home life is like, it’s a huge help for the parents. Whether one parent works two jobs or each parent works a job… they need somewhere for their kid to go after school.” Jacob has been employed at Southside for about a year, but he volunteered with After-Class Experience at Southside, ACES, for five years before that, so he’s known some of these kids for a long time. Things aren’t always easy. You can’t predict what’s going to happen on any given day — learning to be flexible, pick your battles, being the adult. It’s difficult.” However, as challenging as it can be, Jacob says it’s also rewarding. It’s a job I enjoy, not just a money making job,” he says when comparing it to other work he’s done in the past. I’ve always found my best self when I get to invest in kids’lives.

Speaking of Southside’s leaders and the organization’s plans for the future, Jacob says, “We’re in a state of trying to expand and grow… Jake is a dream-big guy. He knows there’s a God backing him up, that if it’s God’s plan it’ll happen. For the first time ever, they have the finances to be able to do these things. They have the money coming in to start expanding their reach.” That’s Jake Moevao, an important leader at the youth outreach who was hired by the founders to take charge and grow the organization. I knew I needed to hear his perspective and vision, as well.

An African-American man from Los Angeles with a football résumé and a hearty laugh, Jake is a breath of fresh air. He never anticipated that he’d be serving at Southside, and the path that led him to Corvallis wasn’t a straight one.

“My past set up a precedent for understanding what a lot of the Southside kids go through, because I’m actually one of them,” says Jake Moevao, speaking of his own upbringing as we sit across the table from each other in Southside’s conference room. “I think all along I was longing for a place like this.” Jake is the Executive Director at Southside Youth Outreach, where he has now been working for three years.

“My primary role is to create, develop, and protect culture. I’m a firm believer after 39 years of being alive on this earth that if you build a healthy culture, quality leaders will come,” Jake says. Both the church and the youth outreach were started by one couple, Steven and Tina Kimmel, twenty-three years ago. “My personal belief is that the best way I can honor Steve and Tina’s work and labor all those years is to take this thing further than it’s ever been, and in order to do that I think change is inevitable. You can’t hold on to the past and move into the future at the same time.”

The needs of the city are revealed through the work Southside is doing to help — and it’s a one-of-a-kind organization. “Southside is the only youth-aimed nonprofit in the state that I know of that offers both faith-based and non-faith based programs,” says Jake. Southside Youth Outreach is dual-focused. Started through an evangelistic church, the organization offers spiritual development programs for kids, incorporating Biblical teachings. They call these opportunities their “Thrive” programs. However, they also provide amazing academic opportunities through separate, non-spiritual “Rise” programs, which include after school and summer school classes.

Jake highlighted their summer school program, a Rise endeavor. “Every now and then you come across someone and you see them in their work environment and you know that that’s what they’re built to do. He’s that guy with kids,” says Jake, speaking of summer school director Dennis Foster. “We are blessed and humbled and honored to have him as the director for summer school. And along with that, since he’s such a likable guy, he just invites a bunch of different teachers and class assistants and they come and join him, and so it’s a really cool thing for us to throw a program with professionals, with actual educators. Since I’ve been here, it’s our strongest and fastest growing program, and it’s the only summer school program offered in Corvallis.”

For summer school, Southside even provides career enrichment such as bringing in professionals from all different fields, including police officers, firefighters, and scientists, to encourage kids to be excited about their futures. “…we want to expose these mostly underprivileged kids to the reality that they can be whatever they want, and that challenges don’t limit their potential.” Jake says this is the part of the program that excites him the most.

Southside also helps kids through their Thrive programs, including Tuesday Club. With Tuesday Club, they target the low-income apartment complexes and the trailer parks, collecting kids from pre-school age through high school seniors, and bring them to the church. “We feed them, love on them, give them a safe place to play, and then we teach them a short Bible lesson, and then there’s a goal at the end of just letting them interact with our staff and volunteers to help build healthy relationships.”

With its host of different programs, strong staff members, and an overall heart to invest in these kids, Southside is growing, and is working to implement changes along the way. “I think as Corvallis continues to experience this diversification that’s been going on, over the last 5-10 years, not only with the influx of international students to the university but also the number of minority families that are seeking refuge up and down the I-5 corridor, we’re seeing the cities changing and so whenever there’s change taking place, people, organizations like ourselves need to be aware of changing needs, and we realize that twenty years ago, twenty-three years ago when the whole thing started, the needs were different, and so we’re now in the process of adapting our programming to meet specific needs within our city.”

What do those needs look like? Well, for one, kids have changed, and Southside is tackling this head-on by investing in new programs to teach their staff how to help kids with conflict and build trust.

Not too long ago, Southside was facing major obstacles. As Jacob McNamara said, Jake is definitely a “dream big guy,” which is evident in the way he approached Southside from the beginning, at a time when they were struggling with both morale and finances. “I think I took the job because I knew it was going to be hard, and I wanted to help resurrect something,” says Jake, palms open to the ceiling. “I wanted to give someone who didn’t think they had a chance, a chance.”

When I asked Jake how to change a culture from the inside out, how success and optimism have come to permeate Southside since he’s been there, he spoke of the trials they’ve faced.

“Last May, we were so low on funds that we had to borrow $8,000 from the church, who has a 7x smaller budget than we do, to pay pay role. And I’ll never forget, I left my office, I walked in the back corner there behind my Honda, and I started to cry.” Even now, Jake’s eyes shine in remembering. “I’ve never lost in my life. I’ve never led a team to lose, and now I feel like we’re losing, and I said, God, I don’t know what to do. We prayed, we asked for counsel, we strategized, and now… last year, we limped across the fiscal year line at a balance of negative $4,000 in our checking account. This year we’ve added two staff, had two raises implemented for our staff members, we’ve bought brand new computers, and we’ve put more into programs than we ever have in the history of this place, and we’re gonna fly across the finish line at the end of this month with a balance of over $40,000 in our checking account. And I say this not to bring glory to any of us, but I think when people see challenge like that, they quit too easy, instead of really going to the end. So, leadership, resilience, and perseverance — grit, if you want to simplify.”

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