Big things are happening in a small, unassuming house tucked away behind the Edmonds Library parking lot.
A relic of Edmonds’ rollicking mill-town past, the little house boasts fresh paint inside and out. But what really stands out is a large colorful banner identifying it as the home of Thrive City, ground zero for “From Failing to Thriving,” an innovative program that provides a different kind of lifeline to local at-risk youth.
Brainchild of former Scriber Lake staffer Sarah Philley, the program helps troubled teens forge sustainable connections between local businesses, support groups, agencies and regular citizens. It then gives them the skills to use these connections to facilitate their growth into happy, productive people with a strong sense of their own self-worth.
No stranger to adversity herself, Philley grew up in the Maple Valley area in an atmosphere she describes as riddled with “severe home and family issues, that didn’t prepare me to succeed, and led to many bad choices.” Like many Scriber students, she found traditional high school untenable. Luckily, she was able to transfer to an alternative high school in her district, where she came into contact with a remarkable sixth-grade teacher named Kathy Clift. Shortly thereafter, Clift transferred to the Edmonds School District where she took over the helm as principal of Scriber Lake High School. She retired this June after 13 years at Scriber.
Inspired by Clift and her other alternative school teachers, Philley went to earn her degree from Antioch University, graduating with a combined major in education, psychology and social justice. After college she began volunteering at Scriber and working with at-risk kids. “Working at Scriber brought me into everyday contact with young people who for a host of reasons were failing to thrive in a traditional school setting,” Philley said. “I saw so much of myself in them.”
Motivated by this, she developed the “From Failing to Thriving” curriculum in 2009 as a personal project, entirely on her own time. “I wanted to give these students tools, skills and practical understandings they need to survive and thrive independently, something they don’t get from a traditional five-page essay assignment,” she said.
Built around an intensive five-day workshop, students are presented with exercises and challenges that begin with a searching self-assessment. In subsequent days, they move to looking beyond their personal struggles, learning how to find and receive help, to turn adversity into an asset, and to discover strategies for becoming positive, contributing members of the community.
Philley presented her ideas to the Edmonds School District and got approval to work with Scriber, where teachers identify candidates for Philley’s program, and connect them with her.
This year, with help from grants and the generosity of individual donors, “From Failing to Thriving” has a new home in Edmonds and has piloted an enhanced seven-week program built on the same principles. Students who complete this program become leaders, mentors and facilitators for new students coming in.
Kayla Shaw-Wagner completed the seven-week course earlier this year.
“My advisers at Scriber offered me the chance to take the five-day course. I really didn’t think it would be too great, but since it had field trips I said OK. But boy, was I ever wrong,” she says. “It literally set my life on a new course.”
Shaw-Wagner went on to be one of the first students in the new seven-week program. “It has been the most amazing life-changing experience I’ve ever had,” she said. “Before, I’d look down on myself, I was full of anxiety, I didn’t have friends, I’d hide and isolate all the time. Now I have so many new understandings, I’ve grown up, I have lots of friends, people look up to me as a leader. Me! It’s amazing!”
Shaw-Wagner described how Philley’s program has changed her life “from black-and-white to Technicolor.” She adds: “Bottom line for me: Before, I didn’t know how to live my life. Now I do.”
Learn more about From Failing to Thriving at the organization’s website.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel