Empower Youth Network director prepares to step down

Laura Smith has been “a real force for good.”

In early November, Laura Smith, the longtime executive director of Empower Youth Network, announced she’ll be stepping down.

Leadership has a shelf life, she said while sitting at her desk in the back of the Empower Youth office about a month after announcing her spring 2024 departure. After 18 years at the organization, including over a decade in charge, EYN is in a stable place and it’s time for some new blood to take the reins, she said.

Once EYN’s sole employee, Smith has built the Carnation-based nonprofit essentially from the ground up since becoming its executive director in 2012. As she prepares for her exit this summer, Smith is drafting a 2024 budget with $1.5 million in revenues, and has 17 co-workers striving to improve the lives of youth across the Snoqualmie Valley.

And to think, it almost didn’t happen.

EYN traces its roots back to the Community Health and Safety Network System, a program of the Washington Legislature that created and funded 42 community networks across the state to address regional needs in social and mental health. The Snoqualmie Valley Community Network, born in 1996, focused on supporting youth and families in the Valley.

Smith was hired in 2005 and took over as executive director seven years later, at the same time state funding for the community network system was sunsetting. The organization went from receiving about $100,000 annually to nothing, Smith said.

Courtesy photo
Laura Smith.

Courtesy photo Laura Smith.

Termination of funding meant community networks across the state had to either go dormant, or go under an umbrella organization to become independent nonprofits. The Snoqualmie network had two years left on a drug-free community grant, Smith said, and she saw that as a window to make something happen.

Empower Youth Network became a nonprofit in 2014, with Smith was the only employee working about 15 hours a week.

“I was working as a substitute in the Riverview School District and was working part-time for the Issaquah Schools Foundation in order to keep this thing going,” Smith said. “Something in my heart could tell that it hadn’t gotten to do everything it was supposed to do.”

By 2015, things were starting to look dire. EYN had $7,000 in its checking account. Sensing the writing on the wall, Smith resigned and planned to help the organization go dormant.

As it looked like the end, Smith grabbed her resume and attended a leadership workshop. She was going through an exercise on purpose when it clicked.

“During the course of this activity it just re-revealed to myself that it’s not just youth anywhere that speaks to my heart. It’s the rural youth in the Snoqualmie Valley, who really have an absence of resources,” she said. “So I shredded up my resume, put it in the garbage, at the leadership thing, and leaned back in.”

A week later, EYN got a grant from the Snoqualmie Tribe, a major victory that helped the organization get off the ground.

Since then, EYN has only grown in size and scope, running a variety of programs across both the Riverview and Snoqualmie Valley school districts. They include programming for suicide and drug prevention, youth employment, food assistance, and annual scholarships. They have also grown the Key Leaders Summit, an annual gathering of adults and youth in the Valley to support collaboration and connections.

Courtesy photo
The Youth Panel at the 2023 Key Leaders Summit.

Courtesy photo The Youth Panel at the 2023 Key Leaders Summit.

“[Laura] has really brought that organization along in a big positive way. It’s had a huge impact on youth in the Valley,” said Carnation Mayor Jim Ribail, particularly praising EYN for its counseling programs and supporting the community through grieving periods.

“Over the last five or six years, we’ve had a lot of instances of death of young people and the outreach that Laura has done for the kids in the community is priceless,” he said. “I get choked up thinking about it.”

For Smith, EYN’s work on suicide prevention has always been the program that spoke most to her, noting an uptick in suicides and mental health struggles among students and graduates in recent years. During its first few years, when EYN was living “gala to gala,” figuring out what programming it could afford to implement, they always led with suicide prevention, she said.

She also highlights helping the organization become more youthful. Almost a quarter of EYN’s board of directors are youth, and the president-elect is only 20. Last year, at its Key Leaders Summit, EYN had a panel for Valley youth to speak directly to adults.

“She set up a panel of teenagers to discuss friendships, relationships, priorities and how we can serve them better. That was just an example of her giving space and time to young people,” said Nicole Finch, director of student services and early learning at the Snoqualmie Valley School District. “She always puts the student voice first. It’s a reminder of her dedication and the core of our work.”

Nela Cumming, the executive director of Encompass NW, said a majority of programming at EYN is developed alongside young people, setting it apart from others. Most youth service organizations are offering services to youth, she said, but not many take the extra step of involving youth in that process.

“That’s a very unique aspect of Empower Youth Network,” she said. “That’s absolutely key to Laura.”

Over the years, Smith and Cumming have worked together on several regional efforts advocating for human services organizations. Cumming said Smith has been “a real force for good,” co-chairing the King County Alliance for Human Services.

“She is working toward improving human services, not just for Empower Youth, but everyone in the Valley,” Cumming said. “She’s put in a lot of effort outside her day job to make sure all human services are supported.”

Smith is planning to stay with EYN until June, as she works to bring in the nonprofit’s next leader, which she believes could already be in the Valley. She admits she’s not quite sure what’s on the horizon, but hopes to continue advocating for bringing services to rural communities out in the Snoqualmie Valley.

“I keep saying I’m waiting for the universe,” she said. “It let me know this was the right thing to do. … For the last year, it’s been letting me know that it’s time. It’s time for the next leader to take it to the next level. I don’t know what the next one is, but it’s gonna be really cool. Whatever it is.”