Story last updated at 9/5/2012 - 1:16 pm
"This is the Round of Death, this is the Pillow Fight of Doom. Alliances can be useful to you here!" said Kelly Johnson, Ketchikan Public Library's office manager, in a loud, booming voice.
Johnson is also the organizer of the Teen Advisory Group, which had assembled for one of their bi-monthly Friday evening events on the bottom floor of the library. That evening's event featured a round of pillow fights, prizes and a movie. But Johnson's vision for TAG is much more than fun and games; she aims to provide a platform to train local teenagers to have a positive impact on their community.
Johnson, 47, grew up in Mesa, Ariz., where she was a member of the Young Adult Advisory Committee at the Mesa Public Library.
"We were yakkers," Johnson said. She made long-lasting friendships, and the group gave her a sense of inclusion, something she wanted to provide for Ketchikan teenagers since she began working at the Ketchikan Public Library 20 years ago.
"I've been advocating for youth services pretty much since I walked in the door," Johnson said. "But it wasn't until about seven years ago until ideas took root."
At the 2007 Alaska Library Association Conference, which was held that year in Juneau, there was a presentation that featured teen advocacy in libraries.
"Juneau had a teen program at that time," said Johnson, who, with her colleagues, was attending the conference. After the presentation, Johnson's staff finally told her, "OK, let's try it."
So that summer, in 2007, Johnson, fresh with enthusiasm and determination to create a similar group in Ketchikan, made a trip to the high school.
"I went into every English classroom and said 'We're starting this group; this is when we're having our first meeting. Come and be a part of it," Johnson said.
Johnson arrived armed with brochures and a poster. She explained to the students that she wanted to give them a voice. She wanted them to give input to the books and movies in the library's collection. Johnson also told them that she wanted to give them a platform "To do other things, like programming for their age group. An exchange of ideas, focused on materials that can be found in the library."
The library would serve as a meeting group for the interested teenagers, where they could share what was of interest to them with each other and form the kinds of bonds Johnson had created in her youth. She had an application form that asked them how much they were willing to do, and that they'd have to commit to make one meeting a month and participate in two activities a year. And, of course, they had to be a teenager.
The first TAG meeting was in June 2007. Seven teenagers showed up. Now there are around 23 students who come to the regular monthly meetings.
"The meetings are pretty standard," Johnson said. "Eventually everybody wanders in. We do introductions and I have everyone say their name and their favorite something: author, movie, video game, whatever."
Johnson only has two rules.
"You can't use negative language," she said, including language about themselves. " You can't say 'I'm stupid' any more than you can say 'Bob's stupid.'" Her second rule is a PG-13 rating for all their gatherings.
"I've had a couple [members] that have an issue with that rule, but we try hard, we try very hard," Johnson said.
The TAG members talk about what material they'd like to see available at the library. They also learn about processes like grant applications and how a library functions. They've helped apply for grants to support the library, like one from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a Walmart Grant. The TAG members have also learned to apply that experience to their own paths in life. Some of the members have successfully applied for grants for college and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.
"They have a voice here," Johnson said. "Nobody can just say 'teenagers, they don't' know anything.'"
The meetings also include leadership skills. Older members learn the skills to serve as mentors for the younger members. In turn, the younger members receive guidance and role models from someone they can relate to more than they can to an adult.
"The older ones help the younger ones," Johnson said. "The younger ones see how you don't have to be reliant, you can be a teacher."
A large part of what the TAG group learns is how to organize events. They host one annual event for the public. The members are responsible for brainstorming the event, sending out solicitation letters for funding, running it; basically the logistics of making something happen.
In addition to the meetings and the annual event, during the summer months the TAG members organize a private event every other Friday.
"They need the responsibility to say 'I'm hosting, so I need to be there early and set up,'" Johnson said. The TAG members also learn that no adult is going to pick up after them, and have to commit to cleaning up after the event. Johnson also explained that as part of the Friday evening events the hosts have to learn basic hospitality skills, how to keep everyone involved and learn ways to ensure no one is left out.
Examples of Friday night events are riddle nights, lock-ins, movie showings, a holiday party where they make gingerbread houses and, of course, Friday's pajama party and the Pillow Fight of Doom.
TAG members showed up in pajamas and armed with pillows. Memory foam and body pillows were prohibited.
"They wanted to know if they could put each other into pillow cases and swing themselves," Johnson said, laughing.
Geralyn Lovell, 18, strummed a ukulele. Melanie Louphman, 15, put down pieces of masking tape in the shape of a large star of the library floor, which would function as the boundaries for the pillow fight.
"I'm not going to say you can push people, but I'm not going to say you can't," Louphman said, as students gathered into the star.
A TAG alumni, 19 year old Austin Calkins, sat at the snack table watching. Calkins had joined the group when he was 14.
"It's just a really good way to meet different people," he said. "It's always a good environment. [There's] never any negative energy, and we do a lot for the library. We suggest materials, help with some of the events that the library does."
As the pillow fight began, Johnson gave words of encouragement.
"This is not Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," she said.
Just before the group sat down to watch "Ferris Breuller's Day Off" Hosley paused for a minute to reflect on the benefits of the TAG program.
"I really like the meetings and being able to do something for my library," said Paige Hosley, round one pillow fight champion. "It makes me feel important. Not only do I get to expose myself to other people, in TAG and at library events and charities, I also get to give back a lot. TAG is one way I can get involved in my community."
Johnson seems encouraged.
"They keep coming back, so they must be having a good time, either that or they like the food," she said. " You can never dismiss that with teenagers."
On a more sentimental note, Johnson added, "I'm thrilled. This is like a life school. Being able to do that here, even if it's just for a small group of teens, is really important to me. It feels good."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at Amanda.firstname.lastname@example.org.