The year was 2018. Evan Cook was helping youth in Federal Way, and he was getting burned out.
Through the Multi-Service Center’s Positive Outcomes Program (POP), Cook and two other adults worked with young people in Federal Way affected by the criminal justice system.
“I lost, probably, five youth,” said Cook, 33. “Some … were homicide, some were suicide.”
That year “was a tough time” for him and the city overall, Cook said. He wasn’t coping properly, and he buried himself in work.
At a youth leadership conference at the Dumas Bay Centre, Cook got the advice he needed: Take a vacation. Unwind. Refresh yourself.
For two weeks, he travelled to Friday Harbor, Orcas Island and Glacier National Park in Montana, quieting his mind and chronicling his thoughts.
It helped him realize what made him feel whole — and the answer was coaching.
“Teaching (young men) about life through a game, that was and has been my self care,” he said.
Cook, now a football coach at Decatur High School, is a mainstay of youth mentorship and activism in Federal Way. He recently released a compilation of poetry titled “How My Soul Speaks,” which addresses that period of his life five years ago.
“My life has been dark for different parts … but finding finding purpose within myself and finding purpose within my community has really been a big light,” he said.
For his advocacy and work with youth both on and off the field, Evan Cook is The Mirror’s Hometown Hero this month.
“FILLING IN THE GAPS OF YOUR SOUL”
Cook, originally from Oklahoma, came to Washington as a 14-year-old after he “got into some trouble” and spent time in juvenile detention. His mom wanted to get Cook out of a bad neighborhood and sent him to live with his brother, a military member who lived in this state.
The Evergreen State showed Cook more diversity than he’d seen in Oklahoma — more cultures, more ethnicities, more kinds of food he’d never tasted. That exposure to more kinds of people “expanded (his) mind” to the similarities of the struggles people face around the world.
Cook played football at Todd Beamer High School and went on to compete as a student ta Eastern Washington University. An internship for the university’s police department led to roughly year of working as a campus police officer, role in which Cook hoped he could channel his passion for justice.
But law enforcement wasn’t the right fit. Cook felt more like “we were giving out punishments” than upholding justice. He loved the community outreach, but disliked making arrests. And he felt the justice system let some people off the hook — like white collar criminals — while going after others.
He found more fulfillment in education and public speaking. It was rewarding, Cook said, to talk to young people about topics like consent — to help them be better men and avoid behavior that they might not even realize is criminal.
“A lot of young men fall victim to that,” he said. “Play fighting, or fighting in general, or acting angry. … This is kind of a take-what-you-want society, and unfortunately, people think that goes toward people’s bodies as well.”
Around 2015, he moved back to the Federal Way area and gave his first speaking engagement at Todd Beamer High School. And in 2018, Cook co-founded the Federal Way Black Collective, a community nonprofit that provides social services, housing assistance, education, access to public officials and other tools. He now serves as the organization’s board treasurer.
The goal is “making sure that we’re not just providing a service, but we’re providing some kind of education, access … making sure the community is not just getting benefits but gaining the tools to be successful on their own,” said Taniesha Lyons, executive director at the Black Collective.
The Collective formed from a group of involved citizens who saw each other regularly at city council meetings and united to advocate on issues like police accountability and systemic inequality, and to fill the gaps in service left behind by the city or county.
“We center the Black voice in everything we do,” Lyons said.
Cook also founded Restoring Mindz LLC, a vehicle for his public speaking and youth engagement.
Tibou Bangoura, who played football for Todd Beamer High School, became an assistant for Cook at Restoring Mindz. He was a sophomore when he met Cook, who “took it upon himself” to train him, Bangoura said, accompanying him on workouts and keeping him on top of his grades. Bangoura also worked with Cook in wrestling and track and field.
“He’s honestly the person who showed me that I was actually an athlete,” Bangoura said.
Cook posed the big questions in life to him: What type of man do you want to be? What values are important to you? What do you want from life?
Cook came to be a coach, mentor, father figure and someone like an uncle or big brother, Bangoura said. And Bangoura saw him replicate that across the community — playing basketball with at-risk youth, helping students with their homework, orchestrating back-to-school events and making sure kids had clothes and food.
There were times, Bangoura said, where “I’d be hanging out with him and he’d have to leave, because somebody just got shot, and he has to go console somebody’s family. … For him it wasn’t a job. It was a lifestyle and who he was as a person.”
Now 24 years old, Bangoura says he wouldn’t be “a lot of who [he is]” without having met Cook.
“He has a way of filling in the gaps of your soul,” Bangoura said.
Why football as an avenue for change?
Jesus spoke through parables, Cook said, and sports similarly allow him to teach life lessons through metaphor.
“In a football game, [when] you get knocked down, you got an option,” Cook said. “The game’s not played down there. So you have to get back up or walk off the field. … Life is going to knock you down. You realize how tough you are by how many times you continue to get back up. And you realize how wise you are by how you learn not to get knocked down.”
And in football, a physical and sometimes violent sport, Cook can explain to young people that they need to be strong; that the day may come when their strength is needed to protect their family, country or community, or even to simply defend themselves.
“FEDERAL WAY HAS EVERY TOOL NECESSARY TO BE AN EXAMPLE FOR THE NATION”
Lyons, who nominated Cook for the Hometown Hero series, said it’s his genuine approach and ability to command respect in a healthy way that makes him an effective advocate for young people.
Teenagers are hard, Lyons said — she raised two of them, and “they’re going through so much more than what I went through in school.” So it’s a special person who shows up for them.
“I noticed just doing some of our activities … at different schools, that no matter where we go, the children flock to Evan. The kids love him. And they love him because he’s relatable. He’s lived some of their stories. He understands how to navigate in this world being a Black man. … (And) he’s intentional about making sure the children he mentors are strong advocates, that they learn how to speak up for themselves.”
For example, in May this year Cook took a group of young people to meet with Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, city staff and the city council to talk about public safety with the city’s decision-makers.
Cook “did not prompt” the youth, Lyons said.
Instead, “he allowed them to do it on their own, so it could be organic,” she said. “He has a way of doing that, getting the youth to talk and engage.”
Tahonishi Bell, the GED Coordinator at Federal Way’s Multi-Service Center and for Truman Campus’ Open Doors program, got to know Cook as a coworker, a close friend, and as someone who mentored her son Gymikio during his teenage football career.
“He’d talk to (Gymikio), come visit him, take him to the gym,” Bell said. “(Cook) is very supportive, loving, caring. He takes on the world.”
Cook is a change-maker and a nurturer, Bell said, someone who has a lot of worth “and still doesn’t quite know it yet.”
Lamont Styles, also a co-founder of the Black Collective and the founder of the Life’s Styles Barber Academy in Federal Way, met Cook nearly two decades ago.
“I have consistently watched him be selfless in the community,” Styles said. “Without thought. It’s not like he is begging for praise or anything like that. He just puts his influence out there. He puts his heart on the line.”
Understanding youth means understanding the “why” behind their behavior, Styles said.
He gave an example of a young man who was recently caught at school with a weapon. It turned out, Styles said, that the young man brought it to protect his brother from being beat up.
“A lot of times these kids don’t feel like [they have] options,” Styles said.
But if you listen to them — give them a chance to make better decisions — and expose them to positivity and services — they respond positively, he said.
“There’s plenty of hope,” Styles said. “There’s plenty of opportunity to reach these kids before, or even after they get into these things.”
It might sound “pie in the sky,” he said, but Styles believes Federal Way has the people and the ability to be a leader in the country for community-run organizations, and diversity.
“I feel like we will lead Washington and the country in this area,” he said.
For Cook and his colleagues, a big piece of that puzzle is giving the youth something positive to look forward to.
Cook, Bell and Styles each brought up the idea of creating a safe and free space for young people to learn skills play games on the weekends and evenings.
“We know that when the kids have something to do, it’s better for the community,” Styles said.
Republican or Democrat, everyone wants to keep kids safe, Cook said — “so this is a call to action for anybody who wants to put forth that effort of building spaces for youth,” he said.
“That’s just kind of my my goal and my vision,” Cook said. “I believe that Federal Way has every tool necessary to be an example for the nation. … It has the balance of rich and poor. .. But most importantly, it has people who care. It has people who go out and advocate.”
Do you know someone in Federal Way who’s making our community a better place? Nominate them for our Hometown Hero series by contacting Mirror reporter Keelin Everly-Lang at email@example.com.