KAPP employee shaves head for $23,000 in donations to Camp Hope

Donations go to 'Jesse's Place,' a shelter for young adults

YAKIMA, Wash. — Ryan Messer started the week with a full head of hair and a promise: to shave his head if friends and family donated $5,000 for the new young adult shelter at Camp Hope.

By Friday evening, people across the country had donated more than $23,000 and Messer — true to his word — had his son shave his head on a Facebook live stream.

“The head shaving was a quick gimmick to get people to actually give,” Messer said. “What I’ve realized since is that nobody needed the gimmick; everybody just wanted to support.”

Messer, local sales manager at KAPP, started the fundraiser when he heard that the new young adult shelter was being named after the son of his friend since junior high school, Susanna Nickens.

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Her son, Jesse, was a former resident at Camp Hope and found solace there when his struggles with his mental health led him to leave home for days, sometimes weeks, and live on the streets.

“Unbeknownst to a lot of people, he suffered from bipolar disorder,” Nickens said. “[Jesse] passed away in 2017. He was actually hit by a car in the Kennewick area.”

Nickens said the family didn’t talk much about Jesse’s struggles with mental health at first because they felt it was his story to tell and they couldn’t ask his permission. Later, she said they decided to share his story in hopes of helping to break the stigma surrounding mental illness and help other families in similar situations.

One of the hard things about having an adult child with mental health concerns, Nickens said, is that once they’re adults, parents have no legal authority over them and can’t help them the way parents can when their child is younger.

“When Jesse got mad at us, he would just deny us access to his medical care,” Nickens said. “He was kind of a stinker that way.”

When he was going through a rough patch and left the house, Nickens said they had no idea where he had gone or if he was okay. It was only after he passed away that Nickens realized he’d often been at Camp Hope.

“That has healed my heart quite a bit to know that some of those times that we were terrified, he was at Camp Hope,” Nickens said. “That’s where he was and he was surrounded by love and compassion.”

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Camp Hope Director Mike Kay said the first time he ever saw Jesse was just a few months after the shelter opened.

“To give you an idea, it was some chain link fence that surrounded four Cabela’s tents and about four picnic tables and some PortaPotties,” Kay said. “That was the camp.”

Kay said he was working the night shift when he saw a young man with wild hair jump over the chain link fence, “like a deer would jump a fence.” Kay didn’t know why Jesse was there until he started asking questions about the camp and how it worked.

“He was in one of his episodes … I fed him a sandwich because he was hungry,” Kay said. “One sandwich became three, three became five. It was clear he hadn’t eaten in a while.”

Jesse continued to visit the camp, sitting in Kay’s pick up truck and talking about his life, about his experiences in and out of the systems designed to help people struggling with their mental health, and discussing how those systems could be better.

“He had a huge heart; he was a protector by nature,” Kay said. “He just really wanted to help others.”

Kay said he learned a great deal from his conversations with Jesse. He said when the camp started out, they wanted to take care of their residents and didn’t want to make them work to receive that help.

But Jesse told Kay it was important to give people options: not to make them do things, but to give them the ability to have a voice and make their own choices — something they’re not always allowed to do in more traditional programs.

Kay incorporated that advice and began a sort of internship program that allowed camp residents to work with volunteers and learn job skills in a place where they could be themselves and have the support they needed to be successful.

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Nickens said her son was always thinking of others; before he had his first manic episode in high school, before he had ever been on the streets, he would make the family stop whenever he saw a homeless person standing on the street.

“We would just pull over and wait because we knew, not only was he going to talk to them, but he was going to hear their story and he was going to give them money,” Nickens said. “He just was really an empathetic kind of person.”

Jesse was good student and a two-time, all-state football player at two positions and lettered in both track and basketball at Davis High School. He loved sports, which gave him and Kay something in common.

“We could talk football all day long and twice on Sundays,” Kay said.

It was through sports that Jesse became friends with Lori Thompson’s sons and Thompson became friends with Jesse’s mom. Thompson worked with Nickens and Messer to reach out to people and get them to donate to the fundraiser.

“Jesse was an incredible young man that battled mental health issues,” Thompson said. “Susanna did everything she could to help Jesse. Our system is so overloaded, overwhelmed … We don’t have the resources and it’s not okay.”

Kay said people in the 18 to 24 range often end up on the streets because they’re too old for any of the resources for juveniles and may not feel welcome or comfortable at homeless shelters with people much older than them. He said that’s why dedicated spaces for young adults, like Jesse’s Place, are so important.

“Mike and I both feel, if this had been in place, Jesse would still be here,” Nickens said.  “I mean, I really feel that.”

Kay said they designed Jesse’s Place around the idea that they could make the space look more like a college dorm room and less like a traditional homeless shelter.

A repurposed classroom portable makes up the walls of Jesse’s Place and is split in half, with room for 13 young women on one side and 13 young men in the other for a total capacity of 26 young adults.

Kay said the bunk beds are also repurposed, coming from the old jail in Yakima; each person gets a bunk bed to themselves and can use the top half of the bed for storage. He said Jesse’s Place should be opening up in the next few weeks.

“Whether its transporting these young people directly to Rod’s House [or] enhancing our case management … that’s what we’re going to try and strive for is to make sure that we have everything that we need for a young person to succeed right here at the camp,” Kay said.

The more than $23,000 raised over the past week will all go toward making Jesse’s Place a home and a refuge, and making sure the young adults sheltering there get what they need. Though Jesse is no longer here, those who knew and loved him said this is a legacy he would approve of.

“Jesse was an amazing soul and we got to have him for 21 years and his struggle is going to provide hope for other families,” Nickens said. “To me that’s bittersweet, but what a blessing to be a part of helping someone else.”