PYAC Promise Builder Award winner Dena Smith shares her experiences during her years with the organization at Friday night's fundraiser. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Back in the 1980s, Philomath resident Dena Smith was a single parent with three young children living in a timber town that had fallen on hard times. Not much existed at the time for youth — the days of a local movie theater and roller rink were gone.

So, she moved to California.

“I was there for three months and I said, ‘I’m not raising my children here … I am going back because of the people,’” Smith said. “My family was aghast and asked ‘how can you go back?’ I told them, ‘that’s the community I want my children to live in.’ And I’m grateful I made that choice.”

PYAC Executive Director Eddie Van Vlack presents Dena Smith with the 2022 Promise Builder Award. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

In the following years, the wheels were put in motion that led to the establishment in 1990 of the Philomath Youth Activities Club. On Friday night during the organization’s Annual Fund Dinner at the CH2M Hill Alumni Center on the Oregon State University campus, Smith received this year’s Promise Builder Award.

“Volunteer action is a hallmark of our organization rooted in the belief that a small group of dedicated individuals can make a positive difference in the lives of the youth,” PYAC Executive Director Eddie Van Vlack said before introducing Smith. “Each year our board assumes the daunting task of evaluating many businesses and volunteers that have a tremendous impact on our organization and select a volunteer of the year.”

Smith said in PYAC’s first year, just under 400 kids enrolled — an indication of its value to the community. The grassroots organization built itself up over time and developed programs for the community’s youth.

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“One of Dena’s goals as a board member was ensuring that PYAC had more to offer than just simply youth sports,” Van Vlack, adding that she was involved with establishing programs such as Summer Jam, Slammin’ Jammin’ Saturday Nights and Safety Town.

“While PYAC still may be known as a youth sports organization because it’s those programs that are most visible within our community, those that are involved with our organization know that we are a much more dynamic positive youth development organization in large part because of the start that Dena Smith gave us,” Van Vlack said.

Van Vlack, who joined PYAC in 1996, said Smith was an instrumental member of PYAC’s “Building on Promise” campaign in 1999, which led to the organization opening its current facilities.

“For those of us who know Dena, we know that she always has an attitude of ‘what needs to be done’ and how can I help?’” Van Vlack said. “She believes very strongly in starting by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly her and her peers were doing what many thought was impossible.”

Oregon State baseball coach Mitch Canham shares his message about the importance of youth activities with the crowd Friday night at the CH2M Hill Alumni Center. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Oregon State baseball coach Mitch Canham served as the event’s featured speaker. Canham shared stories from his personal life that brought home the importance of providing youth with opportunities.

The event, wihch includes a formal dinner celebration, serves as PYAC’s biggest fundraiser on the first Friday in December each year. Warriors baseball coach Levi Webber served as this year’s emcee.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.