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Camp Hope embarks on expansion with Jesse Nickens young adult shelter
  • Updated

Work is underway to outfit Jesse’s Place — a young adult shelter at Camp Hope — with bunks, mattresses and other living necessities.

The shelter will be for young men and women between the ages of 18 to 24, and it’s being dedicated to Jesse Nickens, a former Davis High School football standout who once frequented Camp Hope.

Nickens, 21, struggled with bipolar disorder and was experiencing an episode when he met Camp Hope Director Mike Kay in the summer of 2017. Nickens died the following December after being struck by two cars while walking along a dark stretch of State Route 397 near Finley.

But his presence at Camp Hope won’t be forgotten as it brought to light a great need in Yakima County — an overnight shelter for young men and women experiencing challenges that often drive them into homelessness.

The youth and young adult shelter will be housed in two of four portable buildings Camp Hope recently acquired by Yakima County’s Department of Human Services.

The other buildings will house a family shelter, a single men’s shelter and a single women’s shelter, Kay said.

The family shelter will be dedicated to the late Commissioner Norm Childress, who advocated for such a facility, Kay said. Childress died unexpectedly in September.

The new buildings will more than double the camp’s capacity to about 250 beds, Kay said.

There are more than 80 people sleeping in military tents at the camp.

“This is going to be a game changer for us,” Kay said, noting that former Commissioner Vicki Baker, Childress and current Commissioner Ron Anderson were instrumental in getting the project going.

Esther Magasis, director of the county’s Department of Human Services, was able to secure an $850,000 state grant to acquire the four portables.

The youth and young adult shelter will be more than merely named after Nickens, it will be tailored to meet some of the needs he had. Case management, mental health and other services will be available on site, Kay said.

Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic 

Don Nickens loads donated supplies into the back of a truck to take to Camp Hope Wednesday, March 31, 2021 in Yakima, Wash.

On a recent afternoon, Nickens’ parents, brother and sister-in-law stacked boxes of donated items such as bed sheets and blankets in the portable that’s soon to become the youth and young adult shelter.

Nickens’ father, Willis Nickens, said his son would be happy to see that something is being done to help young adults.

“I think it’s wonderful — I think it’s something Jesse needed,” Willis Nickens said. “I think it’s what Jesse would have wanted for the community.”

Jesse Nickens

On a warm summer night in 2017, Jesse Nickens leaped over a fence into Camp Hope.

At that time, the encampment consisted of only a few tents from Cabela’s. Kay’s pickup pretty much served as his office.

Nickens was muscular and agile, clearing the fence in one swift leap much like a deer would have, Kay said.

“I thought: ‘I hope he doesn’t want to fight — this is going to hurt,’ ” Kay recalled as Nickens approached.

Instead, Nickens began talking to Kay and his staff, asking about the encampment and the homeless programs offered.

Kay said he gave the young man a sandwich, then another sandwich, and another. Nickens appeared hungry, Kay said.

“We sat in my pickup, ate sandwiches and we talked football all night,” Kay said.

In high school, Nickens made all-state in two positions — defensive end and kicker. His talents didn’t end there. He was a pole vaulter, enjoyed music and was featured in a school play.

Nickens also was bipolar.

Signs of the disorder didn’t show until his senior year, but even then, it wasn’t clear what he was suffering, said his mother, Susanna Nickens.

He would go nights without sleeping, then disappear for days afterward. He began smoking pot, she said.

“It really came out of left field for us,” she said. “He was just a really well-rounded kid. He loved sports, he loved music. I think this is something that happens to a lot of families.”

Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic 

A childhood photo of brothers Don Nickens, left, Drew Nickens, center, and Jesse Nickens, right, is pictured Wednesday, March 31, 2021 in Yakima, Wash.

Struggle for help

Susanna said she sent her son to rehab in November 2014, and he ended up at a facility in California. They suggested he might be dealing with more than substance abuse.

She received a call from the treatment center: Nickens had jumped the fence and left.

Later he was accepted into another treatment center, but walked out a few weeks later, Susanna said.

Nickens on several occasions was in the local Bridges program, which provides temporary stabilization treatment.

Nickens was never angry or threatening when experiencing a bipolar episode, she said.

“We are so grateful we had him for 21 years because he definitely was a great kid,” Susanna said.

Susanna believes her son was off his medication and experiencing a bipolar episode when he went walking down the dark stretch of highway the night he was struck by two cars.

Susanna and Willis have kept in touch with the driver of the second vehicle that struck Nickens.

“Because it’s not his fault,” Susanna said. “We just didn’t want him to carry that burden. He’s just a great kid.”

Hopeful solution

Jesse Nickens would have turned 22 on Sept. 30, 2018. On that day, Willis and Susanna decided to visit Camp Hope for the first time.

Susanna said her son would often talk about the camp, so they decided to donate some supplies.

“That’s when I realized, wow, this is much more than a place for someone to sleep,” she said.

Kay approached them about naming the youth shelter after their son. He also shared stories with them about their son.

“He was out there more than we had realized so that was kind of nice for Mike to share that with us,” Susanna said.

Susanna and Willis like the idea of an overnight, year-round youth and young adult shelter that will provide onsite services.

“I love what Mike is doing with the onsite care and onsite management,” Susanna said. “I think that’s going to be key for these young kids.”

Camp Hope is partnering with Rod’s House, a drop-in center for homeless youth, to operate the youth and young adult shelter.

The shelter will accommodate up to 30 beds in two dorms, one for males and one for females.

Steel bunks will come from the decommissioned county jail on Pacific Avenue.

There’s a fundraiser now in place for the youth shelter. As of Wednesday, it had already raised more than $14,000, said Ryan Messer, who’s helping organize it.

“Which is crazy — I wouldn’t have guessed that at all,” Messer said.

This isn’t Messer’s first fundraiser. Last year he shaved his head in a fundraiser that brought $3,000 in donations to Rod’s House.

Donations for the youth shelter can be made online.

Susanna said youth with struggles similar to her son’s need lots of support and services to assure they stay on medications and follow through with their treatment plans long enough to see some progress.

“I just hope they have enough money to support the programs needed for the youth there,” she said.

Kay said youth who come into the camp will be afforded options to work and begin to take on responsibility one step at a time rather than being tossed back out into the world without life experiences.

“I want them to be independent but I also want them to have all the resources to move forward,” he said.

Fair to offer separate tickets for concert series in new location; Fourth of July decision coming in May
  • Updated

The Central Washington State Fair’s annual concert series is no longer included with every fair admission.

Though the fair will offer “a limited amount of first-come concert seats, available for guests who have a hard ‘gate admission’ ticket only, for each concert,” most of the seating will be reserved for those who buy tickets specifically for the concerts, fair President and CEO Kathy Kramer said.

That means the discount season passes, which were sold throughout March, don’t include concert admission. The concert tickets, sold separately, will include fair admission.

The fair’s concert series, which has featured such luminaries as Willie Nelson and Smokey Robinson over the years, has long offered a reserve seating option with a premium ticket. But general admission was open to anyone at the fair. That’s not a universal practice, though, Kramer said.

“It is very common practice for fairs across the country who have a separate concert experience within their footprint to require a separate ticket for their concerts,” she said.

The thinking behind this move, which coincides with a change in concert location, is that doing it this way will make the concerts more of a draw.

“The change in location of the concert series and increased capacity will allow for more seating and the opportunity to bring bigger marque acts to the fair and our community,” Kramer said. “Moving forward, your concert ticket will include your fair admission. This will eliminate the need to purchase two separate tickets.”

Details of the venue change are still to come. The concerts have been held on the Corona Stage at the south end of the fairgrounds near the corner of Fair Avenue and Nob Hill Boulevard.

“We want to announce the new location along with some of the great acts we have booked,” Kramer said. “We have most of the acts booked on a tentative status, waiting to see if we will actually be able to hold live outdoor concerts this year and what restrictions might be in place.”

Last year’s fair, of course, was canceled — as were virtually all local events during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kramer and her team are hopeful about this year.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to deliver some iteration of the annual fair, just not sure yet what that will look like,” she said. “We are anxiously awaiting updates on reopening phases as well as some more definitive requirements for large outdoor events and concerts. The good news is the fair is in the fall and a lot can happen between now and then.”

Yakima’s annual Fourth of July celebration at the fairgrounds is coming up a little sooner. But organizers haven’t ruled that out yet, either, she said.

“We would love to deliver a Fourth of July event to the community,” Kramer said. “Like everything we do these days: Hurry up and wait and work around COVID restrictions or lack of. Until we get clearer direction on capacities and restrictions for large outdoor events we will not be able to commit to this event and will be making that decision early May.”

‘Vax Day’ and a possible fourth wave of COVID: Washington state’s pandemic outlook

If the fight against COVID-19 comes down to a footrace between the vaccine rollout and the variants, both contestants now seem to be picking up momentum.

Washington State Department of Health officials brimmed with optimistic news on vaccination during a Thursday media briefing. Reviewing recent highlights:

Some 1.3 million Washingtonians are fully vaccinated.

Everyone 16 and older in Washington state — some 6.3 million people in total — will be eligible for vaccination on April 15, which state Health Secretary Umair Shah has taken to calling “Vax Day.”

The state’s vaccine providers are administering some 56,000 vaccinations each day, according to the state’s seven-day average. The state is exceeding the goal it set early in winter to administer 45,000 doses each day.

In all, the state has administered some 3.3 million doses as of March 29, and 83% of doses delivered to Washington have found a willing arm for injection.

The federal government has established a mass vaccination site in Yakima to perform up to 1,200 vaccinations a day, according to Assistant Health Secretary Michele Roberts.

Supply of vaccine, which for months has been the largest constraint for the state’s vaccine program, could meet demand as soon as next week.

The state expects to receive some 460,000 doses next week — a record.

A clinical trial of children between 12 and 15 years of age suggests the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could be available to kids as soon as this summer, Roberts said, citing a company announcement.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Shah said. “This is all good news”

Added Roberts: “We have a lot to celebrate.”

With the coronavirus, there always seems to be a “but.”

The possibility of a fourth wave of infections now looms large for health officials. Cases fell dramatically over winter, then plateaued, and now could be headed in the wrong direction.

“Disease transmission is increasing and we are seeing concerning signs.” Shah said. “Case counts are showing increases in King County, Pierce County, Snohomish County … .”

Shah said health officials believe people could be letting up on the measures known to prevent transmission, such as masking and distancing.

“We are not out of the pandemic until we’re out of the pandemic, meaning: Don’t let your guard down,” Shah said.

And coronavirus variants of concern — which could spread more easily, cause more harm, or more readily escape treatment or immunity by vaccination — now make up a majority of most recent cases to receive genomic sequencing by Washington laboratories.

The state stepped up its monitoring of coronavirus variants this winter and is now among the national leaders in sequencing, with some 9.5% of the cases confirmed through PCR testing in February receiving analysis.

The genomic sequencing provides a window into which strains, or lineages, of the virus have become more prominent. Lineages can become more prominent because of genetic advantages, through super-spreading events, or by chance.

A state report on variants released Thursday found that nearly a third of cases from January 17 to March 13 and sequenced in Washington were from coronavirus variants of concern.

During that time period, nearly 26% of cases resulted from two coronavirus variants first identified in California.

Scientists believe these two variants, named B.1.429 and B.1.427, are roughly 20% more transmissible, able to evade some therapeutics like antibody treatments and could cause some reduction in vaccine performance.

Further state analysis of sequencing data shows the overall proportion of cases caused by coronavirus variants of concern growing over time. In the most recent biweekly time period, variants of concern represented the majority of all cases.

The spread of variants has begun to impact treatment of COVID-19.

Last week, the U.S. halted treatment of coronavirus with solely bamlanivimab, a monoclonal antibody therapy offered by Eli Lilly and Company, citing the spread of variants. Bamlanivimab can still be used in conjunction with other monoclonal antibodies.

The state’s understanding of how these variants are spreading will become clearer over time as sampling becomes more representative of all testing performed in Washington state.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which scientists believe is about 50% more transmissible and could cause more severe COVID-19, also is growing in proportion, according to state data.

State epidemiologist Scott Lindquist said health officials will be watching during the coming weeks to see which variant emerges as the dominant lineage — and their primary concern.

If a fourth wave does materialize, many of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 will have some protection. The state’s COVID-19 data dashboard says about 73% of those 65 and older have received at least one shot.

State officials estimate about 330,000 people 65 and older remain unvaccinated; Shah urged them to go online to book a visit as soon as possible or call 1-800-525-0127 and do so by phone.

“We want to make sure we do everything we can to help them,” Shah said.