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Five years old and still JAMming

Students entering grades six through nine invited to celebrate five years of middle school dances


It’s not going to be your typical fifth birthday celebration. Instead of cake and colorful decorations, West Linn’s youth dance party, the JAM, plans to celebrate the close of its fifth year with another opportunity for up to 450 students in grades six through nine to get together, enjoy music and just have fun being together.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Sierra Wilson, left, serves as the lead chaperone inside the gym during each JAM. Sherri Oswald, right, has been in attendence at evey JAM dance held at Willamette Christian Church over the past five years.Officially launched in 2009 as a joint project between West Linn police, the city’s parks and recreation department, Willamette Christian Church and former Trail Blazer Brian Grant, the JAM’s roots go much deeper.

West Linn Police Sergeant Neil Hennelly is one of the JAM’s original organizers. For years, he had been concerned about the lack of safe, healthy social options for West Linn teens and preteens. When Hennelly’s own son was in middle school, Hennelly heard many complaints about the lack of social activities for kids in that age range.

“We saw that a lot on the police side,” he said.

Although most citizen complaints were about nuisance behavior, not criminal activity, Hennelly knew the best way to keep kids out of trouble was to provide positive opportunities for them to socialize.

He worked to rally support for his ideas, including asking neighborhood associations to sponsor activities, but nothing panned out until a chance encounter at a coffee shop brought Hennelly in contact with Grant, a West Linn resident with children in the target age range. As the two chatted in line, Grant asked what there was for kids to do. Hennelly seized the opportunity and described his idea for a dance, and Grant agreed to lend the support of his Brian Grant Foundation.

“He said, ‘I’m in,’” Hennelly recalled.

The next step was to approach the church, which had both the willingness to sponsor youth-focused community activities and a space big enough to handle the kind of event this was shaping up to be.

Fast-forward five years, and 40 JAMs have taken place, with attendance ranging from 250 to 450 students each time.

“If we assume a conservative 300 students per dance on average, that translates to 12,000 students attending the 40 dances over the five years,” Sherri Oswald said. She is Willamette Christian Church’s connections director, one of the original JAM founders and, she says, the only person who can say she has been at each and every JAM.

The JAM by now has a solid history in West Linn, with steady attendance and a formula that pleases its young teen and tween target audience. Besides the music, the JAM offers quiet spaces suitable for just talking and enjoying friends’ company.

“It’s an old-school social network,” Hennelly joked.

The last JAM of this school year will be held June 13 from 7:30 to 10 p.m. at Willamette Christian Church, 3153 South Brandywine Drive. It’s going to be a neon dance, and students are encouraged to wear neon shoelaces, wigs and accessories in addition to a white shirt. There will be a free glow paint station where volunteers will help students apply face paint and permanent paint to shirts. Students should not bring glow sticks, bracelets or personal paint, as they will not be allowed inside.

The June 13 JAM marks both a beginning and an end. For students who will have just completed fifth grade, this is their first opportunity to participate. And for students ending their middle school careers, this will be their last opportunity. Next year, the event format will change to allow only middle school students, in grades six through nine, to attend.

“I love the last dance of the year, all the wide eyes as they come in,” Oswald said, referring to the newly minted middle-schoolers who have been waiting for their turn at the JAM.

“And the nervous parents,” Hennelly added. “It’s a huge step.”

Both of them have plenty of reassurances to offer those nervous parents. Students attending must have a student ID, a JAM ID or a release form signed by a responsible adult. Those forms will be available at the door.

“It’s a very well-supervised environment. All the volunteers are background-checked and are very familiar with the process,” Oswald said.

“You have to come in to pick up your child,” Hennelly said. “It’s part of our safety plan. Once you check them in, you can rest assured they’re in a safe environment.”

If you go:

What: JAM neon dance

Who: Students entering grades six through nine in the fall

Where: Willamette Christian Church, 3153 South Brandywine Drive

Cost: $10 admission, $8 with JAM ID; concessions available for sale

For more information: 789jam.com or 503-656-2328


By Kate Hoots
Education reporter
503-636-1281, ext. 112
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