Mercer Island community comes together to build its safety net

The annual Giving from the Heart fundraiser for Youth and Family Services has raised $220,000 so far.

Mercer Island’s Youth and Family Services (YFS) often works behind the scenes, helping everyone from students to seniors with compassion and discretion.

YFS may be under the radar or even unnoticed, until it’s needed. But once a year, at the Giving from the Heart breakfast, it shines a light on the needs in the community and the numerous services it provides to help, from stocking a food pantry to providing mental health counselors in each of the Island’s schools.

Almost 600 community members attended the breakfast on Feb. 10 to show their support for YFS, including honorary breakfast co-chairs Ken and Sandy Glass, philanthropy award winners Barb Hovsepian and Mercer Island Pediatrics, members of the school board and City Council, King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci and King County Deputy Executive Fred Jarrett.

The breakfast raised about $220,000 from donations, sponsors and glass heart sales for YFS, which has an annual operating budget of $2.2 million.*

YFS clients wishing to remain anonymous had others share their stories at the breakfast. One explained how the counselor at Mercer Island High School helped her overcome anxiety and depression, graduate and eventually become a teacher.

“I’d get to school and I couldn’t go in,” she said. “Then my mom called Cathy Gentino [and] they came up with a plan. I only had to get to the front door — Cathy would meet me there every day and I could go to her office for as long as I needed to before going to class, and during the day if I needed space … Her office was my refuge. She was my ally. She allowed me to re-enter high school.”

She said that kids dealing with trauma, substance abuse and mental illness need these types of professionals to talk to, and they can’t be “the same people who are responsible for discipline, grading and writing letters of recommendation,” as that creates a power dynamic that can be problematic when students really need support.

“I see this every day now,” she said.

Another client, a self-described “YFS frequent flyer,” said that a counselor in her daughters’ elementary school helped her find treatment for alcoholism when she was trying to hide her addiction from friends and neighbors.

“[She] engaged the teachers and together they created a circle of caring adults to check in on my daughters without ‘outing’ me to the whole community,” she said.

Later, her family used the YFS diversion counselor Pat Brick, her daughters participated in the VOICE summer community service program and she and her aging father enlisted the services of geriatric specialist Betsy Zuber.

“It’s not easy to ask for help,” she said. “With the inner pain of isolation and secrecy, I didn’t even know what kind of help I needed. But, what I learned is that we can cut short our pain when we know YFS is here for us.”

Other speakers noted that there are significant misconceptions about the needs of the Mercer Island community, and that not all on Mercer Island are financially, emotionally or socially secure.

YFS provides a safety net “that no healthy community should be without.” The rest of the county noted the benefits of investing in prevention and early intervention to help kids get a better start and hopefully keep them out of trouble later.

Jarrett, an Island resident, spoke about the recently-passed Best Starts for Kids levy in King County.

“By age 3, 85 percent of the brain has already been developed … And it’s where we as a society often forget to invest our money,” he said. “We believe that investments like Youth and Family Services and Best Starts for Kids are the way that we build communities that are stronger, happier and better places to live.”


*Youth and Family Services, a city department, is supported by the MIYFS Foundation, a 501(c)3 that historically supports 7-10 percent of the YFS Department Budget. The vast majority of funding comes from Thrift Shop proceeds, and the city contributes 10-25 percent of the department budget, said Sari Weiss, YFS development officer.

The Mercer Island School District supports $60,000 of a $487,595 mental health program, a YFS department cost that will increase with the new elementary, Northwood opening up this fall. YFS will provide a full time mental health counselor there as well.