Youths Create Teen Center, Knife Kills

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By Frank Klimko
Sumter, S.C.

 

henever youth worker Barbara Brown drives her beige Toyota Corolla past the boarded-up brick building behind the local armory, she feels a twinge of regret and thinks about how much this city of 50,000 still needs a teen center - like the one that once rocked inside that boarded-up building.

Since the center's demise, cruising the streets is again a main recreational choice for local youth. In the dark parking lot of a closed carwash on Broad Street, 50 men from their teens to early 20s gather on a sweltering weekend night, talking and listening to rap music from their car stereos.

"Nah, there ain't much to do here. We hang here almost every weekend," says Denzil Brown, 15, as the sweat beads on his face and drips onto his black-framed glasses.

For youth workers looking to create a safe and attractive place for teens to congregate, the celebrated rise and inglorious fall of the New Horizons Teen Center offers inspiration and warnings. Here is one way to build a model youth center, and how to lose it.

"It was the youth in the community that made it happen, but they had few adults supporting them," says Brown, an agent with the Sumter County Extension Service and a Sumter resident for almost 20 years. "Whenever I think about it, I really do cut myself down."

 

From Suicide to Activism

Near where the South Carolina National Guard Humvees and drab green military tanker trucks now sit, there once stood the New Horizons Teen Center, a 1,600-square-foot dance hall and recreation hub. Local teens created it; one of the original organizers was high school student Cassandra "Cassie" Fuller, who understood too well how much teenagers need a safe haven.

Fuller had been a gang member and became so immersed in drugs and alcohol that she tried to commit suicide twice. One night she watched a close friend overdose and die. "To see the face of death in the eyes of a child is horrifying. But to see the face of death as a child is life-changing," she wrote in a 1991 paper on citizenship.

When she moved to South Carolina from Texas with her Air Force family, the self-described loner and outcast found a mission in the teen center. A project of the 4-H and the Extension Service, the center grew out of a series of local forums called Youth Speak Out.

But while the city had leased an old maintenance garage to the group for $1 a year, the youths had no money to refurbish it. The story is familiar in small towns and cities across the country: Sumter had the need and the teens, but no idea how to fund a positive youth development effort.

 

Passion Makes it Work

Fuller threw herself into the project, writing appeals for money, organizing teens to canvass local businesses for donations, and working with the 4-H and Extension Service to be an agency sponsor for any grants they might receive, recalls Pamela Ardern, an extension service youth specialist and a teen center organizer.

"They were more concerned with having a place rather than having a fancy place," Arden says. "They were the ones who came up with the ideas, set rules and enforced them. The teens had a lot of passion and commitment to make it work. ... It would have never existed except for their determination."

It took about a year to get the center into shape, opening in 1989. Whenever organizers hit a snag, Fuller would take things into her own hands. "I worked with Cassie. She was a real dynamic person who got things done," says Cydric Allen, one of the center organizers and now a VISTA employee for Save the Children. "They [local officials] would say that we couldn't get something done and we would do it anyway."

At one point, Fuller visited a reluctant Gov. Carroll Campbell (R) 40 miles away in Columbia. She wasn't afraid to use her youthfulness as a wedge, hitting up people for money or support after she had talked her way in the door.

At another juncture, when the county government reneged on a promise to fund a full-time youth worker for the center, about 400 teens called council members late at night to urge them to rethink their votes. The position was eventually funded.

"I hate to be patted on the head and told, 'Good girl, go home,' and that's what a lot of politicians did to me. When they did it, that set fire under me more," Fuller told author Wendy Lesko, who featured Fuller in a book on youth activism, "No Kidding Around!"

Fuller won a $1,500 national 4-H Citizenship Scholarship, was asked to speak at a Kettering Foundation "Teens at Risk" forum in Athens, Ga., and testified at state hearings about children at risk. 

"Sometimes it works better to take the unusual and unorthodox approach to get things done," says Lesko, executive director of the Activism 2000 Project, an information clearinghouse (based in Kensington, Md.) that offers ways for young people to become involved in community action. "She painted a very grim picture of the way the world is and there were a lot of key players who took to her dramatic experience."

 

A Positive Place

The center's nonalcoholic dances usually featured a D.J., a cacophony of music and disco lights and more than 200 teens willing to pay the $1 to $2 cover charge to dance 'til about midnight. The dances were usually friendly affairs, with an easy integration of teens from all races, says Glenn Peagler, director of prevention for the local office of the South Carolina Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

"It was a really positive place to go," recalls Peagler, who worked as an adult chaperone at the dances. "The location wasn't the best and the section of town wasn't the best. But there was a good mix of kids."

The center also hosted an array of programs dealing with topics such as alcohol, drugs and AIDS, offered by local agencies like the Sumter County Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, the 4-H, the Extension Service and the school district, says Tom Cloer, the center's first youth services director. Teens helped out in the classes and served as peer counselors.

The teen center ran on a minimal budget: about $6,000 to $8,000, Cloer says, mostly through a grant from the Children's Trust Fund of South Carolina, a youth-oriented charity in Columbia with assets of about $600,000. The National Crime Prevention Council provided a $1,600 grant.

Fuller went to college in 1991, aspiring to be one of the first woman teachers to serve in the U.S. Senate. Most of the other original teen organizers also moved on to college or drifted away. Leadership passed on to the next generation of teens, says Cloer, who by then was working full-time at the center. The teens left behind a model for initiatives targeting urban youth.

 

Beginning of the End

Any stand-alone teen center must deal with the risk of trouble as youths gather outside its doors. Although everything inside can be perfectly fine, it's difficult to control what goes on outside, especially among people who aren't coming in.

As a Saturday dance was winding down on Feb. 29, 1992, a fight broke out in the parking lot, Cloer says. While breaking up the fight between combatants (who did not attend the dance), a police officer was stabbed in the neck. The officer was critically injured but recovered.

The teen center was not so lucky.  Community support plummeted, Cloer says. The youth organizers tried gamely to keep New Horizons running. They eliminated the dances, offered "lock-in" events to ensure the safety of the participants and restricted the parking lot foot traffic. Cloer, badly shaken by the incident, left a few months later. Other directors followed for short stints.

The young people and their dwindling band of adult supporters did not have the resources to wage a campaign to reverse the community's misgivings. "There was a lot of misinformation after the stabbing and they couldn't do anything," says Jean Ford, program director of the Sumter County Boys & Girls Club (annual budget: about $92,000). "It [the stabbing] should not have meant the closing. A statement should have been made, saying what corrections would be made."

Community backing eroded as many parents refused to let their teenagers attend any event - even anti-drug classes - at the center. "After the stabbing, attendance just dropped off," recalls Steve Creech, who was mayor at the time.

New Horizons was often empty, and Ford says it closed in the fall of 1993.

 

No New Horizons

The center's demise may point to the fragility of such stand-alone and unaffiliated youth centers. One answer, Brown says, may be the creation of a number of smaller centers around the county. "I thought that one big center was the answer and I didn't see the merit to multiple sites," she says. "Now I see that is what is really needed."

Another lesson: "I don't think we really put enough effort into generating the very extensive community support" that would sustain the center long-term. While youth workers from other agencies, like the YMCA, occasionally ran programs at the center, Brown thinks that making the center more of a collaboration with community agencies would have helped to get it through tough times.

And the center had drifted somewhat from its early focus on youth development activities, like leadership development, to focusing on recreation. "It became much more that, 'Our mission is to provide a dance every weekend for the kids,'" she says.

(Cassie Fuller, the teen who got the center going, could not be located for this story. She went to college in Virginia and married a man in the Navy.)

As badly as the center was needed for positive youth activities in the early 1990s, it is needed even more today. About 28 percent of youth in the county live in poverty, as compared to 23 percent statewide, according to the latest Kids Count survey and U.S. Census estimates. The economic boom heard around the state has largely bypassed Sumter, its slumbering downtown spotted by boarded-up buildings.

There are limited recreational opportunities: The County Parks and Recreation Department, on a $1.5 million budget, sponsors athletic programs at three summer recreation sites which attract about 110 teens daily, says Gary Mixon, department director. The YMCA of Sumter, on a $2 million budget generated by fee-for-service, reports 350-400 youths in summer programs each day, from intramural sports to swimming.

A teen center "is something that the community could support today because a lot of our young folks don't have anywhere to go," says former county council member Joe Davis, who now runs a real estate business in Sumter and is a part-time magistrate. "You see a lot of children that get in trouble because of access to drugs, or they're just bored and looking for excitement."

New Horizons ran small teen clubs in schools and a local mall for awhile after the center closed, Brown says, until the money ran out.

As she makes the turn off of Artillery Drive, she can see workers putting a fresh coat of paint on the armory. The National Guard has taken over the old teen center building and plans to convert it into classrooms.

She hopes the community can offer a teen center again some day, or multiple centers. But funds for such undertakings are no more available now then when Sumter's teens held their first Youth Speak Out in 1989.

Back at the carwash, Denzil Brown, who hitched a ride with his cousin, Tavis Brown, 22, watch the evening's entertainment: At a nearby intersection, a convoy of city police cars surround a small Honda Civic. The police brandish their guns. The driver obediently gets out, is handcuffed and arrested. The carwash crowd starts to break up.

"Like I said man," says Brown, "there ain't nothing to do here."