Encouraging, equipping, and empowering the youth of Alaska: that’s been the mission of Nikiski local Todd Brigham since around this time last year. Last summer he and his family acquired a location in the Nikiski mall that he hoped to turn into a youth center for the kids in the community. Today, the Compass operates as a combination coffee shop and faith-based youth center with a mission of empowering kids by building healthy relationships, teaching practical life skills and sharing the love of Jesus.
The Compass features a number of games like ping-pong and foosball and a shop where kids can practice anything from pottery to auto repair. There is also a quiet room reserved for homework sessions and bible study, and during the school year volunteers offer tutoring sessions and workshops that give kids the opportunity to learn a new skill. The Clarion sat down with Brigham to talk about the first year for the Compass and what it’s like to run a nonprofit for the first time.
Clarion: When did you officially open your doors?
Todd Brigham: Last year, Sept. 5, we opened for drop-in. So in August we had a little open house, invited the community and had a barbecue. We officially opened Sept. 5 for youth and then the coffee shop opened Dec. 10. So basically for the youth we were open for the whole school year this last year.
Clarion: And how have things gone in the first year?
Todd Brigham: Oh, really good. During the school year we were averaging around 35 youth coming in every day. And they’re not necessarily all here at the same time. Some of them go do martial arts or they have sports so they’ll come before or after their activities. But it’s filled a neat little niche where there’s a good, safe, fun place to be in between their after-school activities. And some of them come the whole time — there was a group that hung out for about three hours pretty much every day of the week. We’ve had as many as 50 kids come in one day, and we had over 220 different kids come in during those first 10 months. So I think it’s gone really well in terms of building relationships and really getting to know these kids in such a short amount of time.
Clarion: Before this you were an engineer at ConocoPhillips. How does your current role differ from your previous job?
Todd Brigham: It’s definitely a lot different than sitting in my office engineering and working on projects, but I think a lot of my tenure in the industry gave me a lot of tools to apply to a nonprofit setting. This last year has basically been like managing a construction project. Over a thousand volunteer hours and a lot of money was donated from individuals and local businesses to make this happen, so my experience as an engineer and project manager helped with that. While I’m wearing a lot of different hats these days, there are some similarities.
Clarion: So the Compass functions as a coffee shop and a youth center. Explain how the two operate differently, and what are the hours for each?
Todd Brigham: So when we first got this really nice facility we thought: the kids are in school and they get out at 2:15, so why just let it sit empty all morning? We decided to open a coffee shop that would help support the nonprofit and hopefully generate a little bit of money for the different youth activities. The coffee shop opens at 6:30 in the morning and goes until 1:30 in the afternoon. Then we transition to youth drop-in. In the summer we’re doing 2 to 5, but during the school year we do 2:30 to 6.
Clarion: How does your schedule change from the summer to the school year?
Todd Brigham: Well, as you’re finding out, in Alaska the summer is crazy. People are going and doing other things, which is as I expected, so we decided to have the drop-in just a couple days a week, and the doors are open Monday and Wednesday. Kids are off with their families playing, fishing, vacationing. And transportation is also a challenge out here with the younger kids. Their parents might work and they don’t have any way to get here, and we don’t have any kind of bus system right now. A few times this summer we’ve had some outdoor activities, like bike day where we had a barbecue and fixed up everyone’s bikes. A few kids had outgrown their old bikes so we went ahead and upgraded them to new ones as well. We had a lake day at my house where we played some games in the water and in the yard, and we’re planning on hikes and beach bashes as well. The summer is definitely going to be geared toward outdoor activities if we can. It makes a little easier for families to plan for specific events, and in the future I’m hoping to get some college interns to run a few trips. Fishing, hiking, things like that. This is our first summer too, so we’re still figuring a lot of things out.
Clarion: What’s the general age range of the kids that hang out here?
Todd Brigham: It pretty much mirrors the middle/high school down the road, so sixth grade to 12th grade. In the summers we’re looking at letting those graduating into sixth grade participate in some of the activities. It’s already a really wide age range, so we try to stick to that. Elementary kids can’t really relate to 11th and 12th graders.
Clarion: Do you think it’s important to focus on the older kids and give them something to do after school?
Todd Brigham: Absolutely. The younger kids have things like Boys and Girls Club, and we’re not trying to step on any other churches or organizations. We wanted to cater to the kids that aren’t really involved with anything else outside of school. We also have a large group of home-school kids that may not be involved in some of the other school functions. This is a good opportunity for them to come hang out, meet their friends and just get out of the house for a little while.
Clarion: What has been the biggest challenge of running the Compass?
Todd Brigham: Well I’ve never been involved in a nonprofit before, so to start one from scratch and handle the administrative side has been a lot. There are so many aspects to being a 501(c)(3) to keep track of, and being the executive director of a small startup, my time is split between spending time with the youth and handling the administrative side of things. So juggling that balance has been a challenge, but I hope going forward I can continue to spend most of my time and energy helping and teaching the youth.
Clarion: And what has been the most rewarding part?
Todd Brigham: I would say without a doubt it’s the relationships built with the youth. That’s kind of manifested itself this summer, with the youth off with their parents out in Bristol Bay fishing or wherever. Out of the blue I’ll get a text that’s a picture of them on the boat, or a “Hey Todd how ya doing? Just thinking about you” that shows that we’ve had an impact and that a relationship has been built. Because they’re not even here and they’re thinking about the Compass and our volunteers, which is pretty cool. Besides that, the way the community — from the churches to the local businesses to individuals — have supported us has definitely been a highlight as well. You go into this without funding or anything and you don’t know how that’s all going to come together, so we’ve come a long way since we got the key to the place on June 9 last year.
The Compass is located at 51781 Kenai Spur Highway in the Nikiski Mall next to Charlie’s Angels Pizza. For more information or to make a donation, visit thecompassak.com or call 907-598-8633.