In 2015, a group of community members, including teenagers, came together to discuss how to specifically serve high school students in the Issaquah area.
By September 2018, The Garage, a Teen Cafe opened its doors at 235 1st Avenue Southeast.
KayLee Jaech, executive director of The Garage, found an abundance of opportunities for elementary and middle school students. But for high schoolers, those opportunities were lacking.
“Once you hit high school, there’s just really a lack of support — especially after school and finding places to go and things to do can be difficult,” said Jaech.
The Garage worked with the City of Issaquah, which leased their location free of charge for 10 years. Throughout the planning process, Jaech said it was crucial that teenagers were involved, and that there were a few things they needed for the space.
“We were only going to serve high school students. Mixing middle school and high school never works out well for the high school students,” said Jaech. “And we just tried to remove all the barriers that we could, so everything is free. Everything that they do here is free to them.”
A sign on the outside of the building reads “We’re open for all teens,” which acts somewhat as a deterrent for adults, who are not allowed in the space. Jaech explained how she invites parents of teenagers to tour the space to understand and learn about where their children are spending time.
“And then, as respectfully as I can, I invite them to leave,” said Jaech. “I think it’s really important that this space is just for them [the teenagers].”
Jaech said three years ago, The Garage received a grant from the Issaquah Arts Commission, which they use toward purchasing what students need, in addition to receiving donations for supplies.
When planning the space, an important aspect was for the nonprofit to have a counselor, although they have not had one since March. Jaech explained they usually have at least one counselor, if not three, but it’s been a recent challenge to find mental health service providers.
“We do have a case manager,” said Jaech. “She’s really focused on the most at-risk youth — youth that are either currently unhoused or facing that possibility, and so she helps them navigate systems for that.”
According to Jaech, The Garage hosts between 60 and 100 students every day. In May, The Garage had 1,485 visits and there have been more than 10,000 visits this fiscal year, which closes at the end of June.
“For the most part the teens are coming in, they grab a drink, a snack, and they’re here meeting their friends or if they’re not finding their community at school, then they come here and slowly but surely they find their community,” said Jaech.
A variety of interests are brought to the space, which is programmed by teenagers. Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jaech saw a good amount of art being brought to the space, such as art shows and documentary screenings. Currently, music and crafting have become popular in the space, with the students showing further interest in trivia nights, Dungeons and Dragons, and knitting.
“The most beneficial thing for them is to be open to what they’re most interested in having happen here,” said Jaech.
On top of holding an inclusive space for all high school students in Issaquah, The Garage has made a mark on the LGBTQ+ community in the city.
During its first year open, The Garage held a rainbow prom event. They recently held their second rainbow prom, which was put off for two years due to COVID-19.
“We were the first organization in Issaquah to have a Pride event,” said Jaech, adding that three years ago, The Garage held a drive-thru Pride parade event where cars got glammed up and drove past the building and decorated streets.
Although COVID-19 created challenges, The Garage continued Pride celebrations in 2021 by holding a band Pride event, where some of the teenagers performed in a band while the mayor of Issaquah made a proclamation.
“We have representation on our staff and on our board, so that definitely comes through just through leadership, which I think makes a difference,” said Jaech. “Then I think it’s evolved as we build trust, and the teens have felt comfortable bringing themselves to the space.”
To kick off the 2022 Pride weekend, The Garage is hosting a carnival-esque Pride event from 2-5 p.m. June 23 with activities, and food and drinks. The event is open to the community.
As high school students in Issaquah graduate and move on to other ventures, they are always welcome at The Garage, Jaech said. According to Jaech, some of the students keep in touch and visit when returning home from college.
“I will also say, it’s also great when they stop swinging by because then you know that they’re good,” said Jaech. “They’re doing the adult things that they’re supposed to do, and so I love being available to them as they’re transitioning to that next space, but also super excited for them when they no longer need us.”
The Garage is open from 3-7 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information visit https://www.issaquahteencafe.org/