Concert a gem for YouthCare

For 25 years, Vicki Wagner has been trying to get people to care about Seattle's homeless kids, to believe in young people who don't believe in anything, much less themselves.

Two years ago, and despite that struggle, Wagner and her organization, YouthCare, kicked off an effort to raise $8 million for a new Orion Center where homeless kids can be cared for, schooled and trained.

They got to the halfway mark when fund raising sputtered, and it seemed as if the vacant building they secured on Thomas Street in Seattle might stay that way.

But runaways kept showing up — more all the time.

Then a miracle happened: Pearl Jam agreed to do a benefit concert for YouthCare on Oct. 22 at Benaroya Hall.

Tickets went on sale Oct. 3 and sold out in less than five minutes. Advertisements for the acoustic show mentioned YouthCare, time and again, raising awareness like never before. At YouthCare's auction last weekend, five pairs of tickets and other items donated by Pearl Jam raised $25,000.

"It's been a whirlwind," Wagner said. "Pearl Jam was at the top of our list, but we had given up. To get this kind of support ... "

The other morning, Wagner gave Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready a tour of the current Orion Center, a cramped maze of rooms on Virginia Street where dramas big and small unfold every day.

McCready, 37, grew up in Laurelhurst, free of the demons that haunt these kids: physical and sexual abuse, drug addiction. The unknown.

"Look at it outside," McCready said, nodding to the rain. "It's critical for these kids to have a place to go that's safe. This is an immediate thing. You see it on the streets."

That's how YouthCare came to the band's attention. Guitarist Stone Gossard wondered about the knot of kids he always saw outside the building.

McCready met a few of them the other morning on the front stoop. Once they got over the shock, they asked him for a cigarette.

"Sorry," he said, "I quit eight months ago."

McCready talked to the staff about job training and recreational therapy. Then he stuck his head in the classroom, where he recognized teacher Gina Cassinelli from their days as classmates at Eckstein Middle School.

"He always wanted to be a rock star," Cassinelli said, sizing up McCready with a smile.

They talked about the struggle to get these kids "to let go of the past," and to get excited about learning.

"Thanks for doing this," she told McCready. "This is huge."

The acoustic show, McCready said, "will be a stripped-down way for fans to see the origins of how some of our songs came about."

(Listen for "Daughter," "Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town" and "Betterman," but not "Save You.")

Best, it will introduce YouthCare to a new audience.

"As a group of five human beings," McCready said of Pearl Jam, "we would be in neglect of our humanitarian duty if we didn't do this. We just better play well."

Reach Nicole Brodeur at 206-464-2334 or More columns at

Small hands make big sounds.