Kraken's foundation seeks to 'show up' in Seattle communities, and provide more than hockey and money

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NHL Seattle community engagement director Kyle Boyd watches third graders at Des Moines elementary practice stickhandling during a floorball session in March 2020. - Geoff Baker/TNS

SEATTLE — Melinda Giovengo has seen promises come and go during her three decades spent navigating ways to keep homeless youths off the street.

So when she sat down four years ago with Tim Leiweke and his partners who eventually birthed the Kraken's expansion NHL team, Giovengo was skeptical. As executive director of Seattle-based YouthCare, she often had heard pitches by companies promising to help with critical job training for the homeless teens and young adults residing within her shelter spaces. But things rarely progressed beyond piecemeal work placements.

This time, though, from her first meeting with Oak View Group (OVG) co-founder Leiweke, whose company is spearheading a $1 billion overhaul of what's now Climate Pledge Arena, she sensed things would be different.

"I had no idea who these guys were — I thought they were going to pitch us some hot-dog jobs," she said. "And I mean, I love a good hot-dog job. Everybody needs a first job, any job, right?

"But we talked for about an hour and a half, and I walked out thinking, 'I think that guy is really interested,' because all we talked about was the young people and their futures. And the struggles they're having ... and how the real way to end youth homelessness in our community is by really engaging our young people in education and employment."

Homeless youth is one of three key areas — with improving youth access to hockey and promoting environmental justice — targeted for assistance by One Roof Foundation, recently launched as the philanthropic arm of the Kraken and its OVG arena partners. YouthCare estimates about 1,100 unaccompanied youths and young adults in King County experience homelessness on any given night — 70% sleeping outside, the rest in shelters or "couch surfing" from place to place with friends and family.

As the Kraken prepares for an on-ice October debut, Giovengo said YouthCare is similarly gearing for its own "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" in which the team, its revamped arena and Northgate Mall training center will provide jobs and career training for youth served by her group.

Giovengo said the way the Kraken and OVG have earmarked those jobs in what's to be a minimum 10-year partnership with YouthCare, represents "a transformational change" for the youth homelessness issue.

"If we're going to end homelessness, housing's a given," she said. 'But you can't just have a house and no way to sustain yourself."

A jobs fair planned this summer by the Kraken and YouthCare for candidates ages 16-24 will include position openings in guest services and box-office ticketing at the arena. Also, for a game night stage manager, control room assistants and runners, and general labor and arena conversion jobs within the venue's operations department.

There also will be server and kitchen staff positions at the training center's planned restaurant and jobs at the facility's admissions and skate-sharpening counters. Exact numbers of available job positions and internships in each category are still being finalized.

YouthCare also has an early apprentice program that has placed people within contractor companies helping with arena and training center construction. Giovengo's group also is looking into having space allocated at both venues for classroom teaching and training purposes.

In addition to providing jobs, One Roof has committed $10 million to YouthCare over the next decade. Giovengo said the money and jobs commitment have given YouthCare the confidence to embark on opening a physical academy space with classrooms and affordable housing units, affiliated with local community colleges, in Capitol Hill by 2023.

The One Roof name was gleaned from Climate Pledge Arena's historically preserved roof and symbolizes the Kraken and OVG working together.

Mari Horita, the Kraken's vice president of community engagement and social impact, said the foundation's goal is to be more than a "third-party funder" for nonprofit groups.

"I mean, we're a hockey team," said Horita, also One Roof's executive director. "So let's leverage our strength."

With youth homelessness, she said, that means offering hockey-related jobs rather than simply throwing money at the problem and hoping others provide employment.

As for furthering hockey access and promoting environmental justice, Horita said the team must similarly "show up" in communities and listen to ideas rather than telling them what to do.

"At this moment in time, in our country, we're at a sea change," Horita said. "And as we emerge from events of the past year, I believe there's a largely shared understanding that we need to go back and do things a little bit differently.

"And we need to do it in a way that's better and a way that includes everybody."

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Few Kraken employees have traversed the Puget Sound region spreading hockey's gospel more than Kyle Boyd, a former high-school history teacher and now the team's youth and community development director. Once a rare Black youth hockey player in his native Minnesota — and the son of the NHL Wild's former team physician — Boyd spent the pre-pandemic weeks lugging sticks, nets and other equipment to primary and middle schools where he'd introduce "floorball" hockey to an array of students from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Though the pandemic halted those visits, Boyd maintained virtual contact with physical-education teachers and school districts, plotting the next phase.

He since has written a floorball curriculum of roughly 60-70 pages to help students and teachers implement techniques he demonstrated. The curriculum soon will be released in PDF form to 20 schools within the Highline School District so floorball — played in gymnasiums with something resembling a Wiffle ball instead of a puck — can be taught regularly next fall.

"That's our main focus right now, kind of getting it out to them," Boyd said. "And then from there I'm kind of working with the other school districts around the region."

But producing the curriculum and providing schools floorball equipment costs money, which is where the foundation comes in. The Kraken also hired a local artist, R.C. Johnson of Renton, to illustrate the curriculum after seeing his work online.

Johnson, 27, a Bellevue College graduate who is Black, says his art often revolves around community "representation" themes. He said "the Mighty Ducks movies" were his only exposure to hockey before the Kraken contacted him.

"I was very surprised to hear from them, but when they told me about the project, it sounded very interesting," Johnson said.

The curriculum uses eight fictionally created characters — some from Black, Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds — to demonstrate hockey techniques. Johnson said his illustrations were influenced by personal experiences.

"When you grow up Black, you do have problems with representation," Johnson said. "I've always struggled with turning on the television and only seeing people who look like me in certain roles and certain positions."

He hopes "seeing people that look like them" within his illustrations turns more youths on to hockey. Boyd brought him sticks to hold and familiarize himself with the grip so his illustrations didn't contain improper techniques.

"It's been really interesting illustrating these characters and getting to learn about the sport," Johnson said. "When I drive around town now and see people wearing Kraken gear and stuff I get excited. It feels like my team now."

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Much of the foundation's work is still conceptual, including the promoting of environmental justice. One Roof hopes to focus most on helping communities impacted by climate change.

Horita said the foundation has begun fact-finding with community groups in South Park to figure out how best to help.

"They're at a convergence zone, so there are a lot of highways, Pacific waterways, industrial zones," she said. "And now that the West Seattle Bridge is down, you've seen more traffic diverted there. So, the air quality level is pretty horrendous."

One Roof is also finalizing its own fundraising. For now, fans can support it through a donations link on the OneRoofFoundation.org website or by buying specialized Kraken license plates online through the state's department of licensing.

Future in-game raffles and auctions and stand-alone events also likely will be held, along with direct appeals to local companies once the foundation's impact can be better demonstrated. Horita said the Kraken and OVG realize their future hockey business greatly depends on making an impact within communities with rapidly changing demographics.

Kraken staffers in all departments are aware, she said, that such outreach represents "an organization-wide commitment" and has top priority if One Roof needs their help.

"The foundation is very much a part of our DNA," Horita said. "We've been building a foundation parallel to the team and the arena well before we draft our first player. It's not an afterthought."