For 20 years, Isaac’s Room in Salem has provided teens and young adults space to learn life skills, stay employed and face personal challenges with the help of mentors.
The nonprofit is now ready to create about a dozen new jobs for teens by expanding its downtown coffee shop, thanks to a federal grant from Marion County.
The county’s Board of Commissioners voted Feb. 1 to award Isaac’s Room $250,000 of federal Covid relief funding, intended to help replace revenue lost during the pandemic and grow their youth development work.
Tiffany Bulgin, who founded the nonprofit with her husband Mark, said the funding will help them double the Isaac’s Downtown coffee shop in size, build a new kitchen and expand their bakery, which “has been one of the best entry points for our youth.” She says expansion will add 10 to 15 new jobs within the program, including dishwashing, prep work and a full-time bakery manager who also works as a mentor.
Bulgin said the grant will also help cover revenue that the nonprofit lost out on during Covid, including from coffee sales and a fundraiser, which was canceled in 2020.
Before starting Isaac’s Room in the early 2000s, the Bulgins were a foster family for teens who had recently left a youth correctional facility, which they continued while running the program. At one point, Mark quit teaching and coaching basketball to take care of the teens full time.
“We just really felt like the boys we were seeing had so much potential and just had never really been given a lot of investment,” Bulgin said.
It was around that time that she became pregnant with their first child, Isaac, who was born with a heart condition and only lived two and a half months.
“We were grieving terribly and somehow came out of that kind of more determined to give Isaac’s room, literally and figuratively, to kids in the community that weren’t going to have that kind of parental intention and tenacity that we learned about with Isaac,” Bulgin said.
Isaac’s Room has since mentored, trained and employed around 500 Salem teens between the ages of 14 and 20.
The program starts with a four-week “training camp.” They meet three times a week for three hours to do a workout and go to class, “where we teach all of our key ideas of how to make life better, how to be the hero of your own story,” Bulgin said. “We teach how to solve issues, how to take control, and to see their value.”
One of the most valuable parts of training camp, Bulgin said, is learning to face challenges with mentored support. A group dinner always comes after class, and the teens “are not required, but strongly encouraged to answer questions about life and what they’re learning.”
“We found it’s kind of magic, those four weeks, just that alone, those components all together kind of help them feel more comfortable,” she said. “They trust us and then they start to open up and feel like this is a safe place for them.”
Then begins the internship phase. For three to four weeks, teens can take classes on how to be a good employee and volunteer for a service learning project – most recently, helping the city of Salem plant trees.
When they complete that, they can get a job. Many who are working for the first time start at a small operation that cleans the IKE Box, Isaac’s Downtown and two residential properties the Bulgins run.
After putting in a certain number of hours on the cleaning team, they graduate to one of the IKE Box locations, the baking team or the kitchen.
Meanwhile, they attend class on Wednesday nights and continue to talk with their mentors, who help ensure their individual needs are met, including education, counseling, and parole and probation.
The one-hour classes, Bulgin said, go over finance, cooking, car maintenance, banking, poetry and emotional intelligence.
Those who take the full journey call it “IKE Quest.”
“We never want to become a place where you just clock in and clock out, and it’s a paycheck. We always want to be that challenging, growing place,” Bulgin said.
Some who became involved with Isaac’s Room as teens have gone on to become leaders in the program. IKE Box’s manager and the program’s baking manager are both graduates of IKE Quest, and three more are working as peer mentors in a new training camp that started on Monday.
“When I think of success, I think of them believing that they are worth it, and able to give to others. So they go from being a receiver and thinking that they aren’t valuable to feeling so valuable, and they get their value from giving, from serving, from helping other people,” Bulgin said.
Those job opportunities halted during the pandemic.
“We couldn’t really do what we were doing,” Bulgin said. “Most of what we do has a lot of team involvement. A lot of our youth that were involved at the time weren’t able to get enough hours.”
Bulgin said she learned the federal funding was available from Marion County Commissioner Danielle Bethell when she attended a fundraising event for Isaac’s Room. The Bulgins applied for the funding last fall.
“I think this is a fantastic program that didn’t exist when I was a divested youth in this community,” Bethell said at a Wednesday board meeting, before voting to approve the funding. “Anytime you can get a kid a job, they’re not receding from the system and they’re living a more fruitful healthy life. There’s just so many components to the success of this.”
Commissioner Colm Willis said his vote “was an easy yes.”
“You really can tell how good a community is by how they treat the kids in that community,” Willis said. “I think of how much the community benefits from Isaac’s Room.”
The program also offers outdoor activities such as hiking, water skiing, wakeboarding or trips to the beach. They take the teens on an annual trip to San Francisco, which they will resume this spring break for the first time since 2019.
The Bulgins live in Salem with their two children. They operate two residential homes east of downtown on Northeast 14th Street where young adults over 18 who are doing well in the Isaac’s Room program can stay if they don’t have a safe, supportive place to live. The homes currently have just under 20 residents, including mentoring adults and two managers.
Bulgin said many programs in youth services are focused on what not to do and who not to be with.
“They’re being told everything they’re not supposed to do, and we want to tell them everything that they are,” she said.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.