Teen Centers, Complete with Teens

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So you’re going to create a safe teen center in your town, and teens are actually going to hang out there? Yeah, right.
While teenagers in towns and cities across American routinely lament, “There’s nothing to do here,” creating a teen hangout is a difficult task.

Suzanne Taylor, who co-owns the Rock Fitness Center in Cynthiana, Ky., a small town 30 miles north of Lexington, heard the refrain from her own teenager. So she and her husband proposed to turn part of their fitness center into a place for teens to socialize, dance and have a good time in a safe environment.

While the House of Rock, which opened last January, quickly became a popular youth hangout, the road to get there wasn’t easy – particularly when the Taylors asked for financial support from Harrison County, and some officials balked at funding a private enterprise with taxpayers’ money.

While the idea of creating teen centers so kids can have a safe place to go after school or on weekends is common, actually opening one and keeping it going is unusual.

“Funding is a constant challenge,” says Martha Bloom, vice president of programs for the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation in Michigan. The foundation’s youth council provided partial funding for a teen hangout called The Neutral Zone in 1998, and while the hangout has been wildly successful among the area’s youth, Bloom admits that money is often hard to come by. The Neutral Zone, like many teen centers, receives some money from local government, but relies heavily on less reliable revenue streams, such as grants and private donations.

Another issue is location. Almost all supporters of teen centers run into community opposition based on fears about teens gathering in a concentrated place, causing trouble and making neighborhoods undesirable or unsafe.

Jennifer Jones, nutrition program manager for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tioga County in New York, ran into those concerns while lobbying for a teen hangout in the small town of Waverly. “The kids were hanging out downtown anyway,” Jones says. “Eventually, people recognized this would be a concentrated place for them to go.”

Jones, who helped organize Waverly’s Phoenix Kids Café in 2003, says downtown businesses rallied around the project because they realized that if kids had their own hangout, they wouldn’t be milling around in front of the stores so much.
But even after winning community support and money, organizers still have to lure the teens and keep them coming.
Kelly Breniser, who serves as a youth adviser for the Hartland United Methodist Church on the outskirts of Detroit, says that after she finally convinced parishioners to use part of the church’s new fellowship hall as an after-school hangout for teens, she had trouble convincing kids to go there. “Some kids won’t come here, because it’s a church,” she says. “But this is not a Christian program. It’s just a hangout.”

The facility features basketball, table tennis, movies and special programs on such things as Tai Kwon Do and salsa dancing. Breniser says she typically sees around 25 kids in an afternoon, ranging from seventh-graders to high school juniors. Seniors, she says, are the hardest to attract.

Taylor found the same challenge at the House of Rock in Kentucky. She has attracted older youth by holding themed dances, like Hawaiian luaus, and letting high school clubs co-sponsor dances to raise money.
Tiffany Hall, who helps oversee The VIBE teen center in Foster City, Calif., says the only way to draw older high school students is to make a teen center relevant to them. “They’ll come more for an event or program that’s geared toward them,” she explains.

Or even better, put the kids in charge. That’s what The Neutral Zone did, and it stands as a shining example of what a youth-driven teen center can look like. Kids at the Ann Arbor center run a recording studio and poetry slam contests, and they dictate what kind of programming they want. “By the time they’re seniors, they feel like they have ownership of the programs here,” says Program Director Lori Roddy.

Roddy has hit on an essential element for making teen hangouts work: making them as youth-driven as possible. The more the kids help run the places, raise funds for them and establish what behaviors and activities will be acceptable, the more likely they are to see the centers as their own, and not as hangouts forced on them by adults.
“Involve the teens,” urges Jones, in Waverly, N.Y. “This is for them.”

House of Rock
The Rock Fitness Center
Cynthiana, Ky.
(859) 235-9600

The Approach: While the Phoenix Kids Café demonstrates success with younger teens, it shows how teen centers struggle to draw older kids. Suzanne Taylor, who runs the House of Rock with her husband, Jeff, says parents inspired her to make sure the teen center she started separated kids by age. Parents of middle school students didn’t want their kids hanging out with older teens – and older teens didn’t want to hang out with middle school kids.

So the weekend hangout hosts dances, with middle schoolers coming one night and high schoolers the other. “We felt teens in our community needed an outlet,” Taylor says, noting that there isn’t much for kids to do in small-town Cynthiana (population: 6,000). “We wanted to provide clean, safe entertainment.”

Every Friday and Saturday night, teens dance to music provided by a disc jockey, eat at the snack bar and watch videos on a big screen. All the kids have to sign in and sign out, and teens who don’t follow the rules have to leave. “We don’t allow fighting, alcohol, smoking or dirty dancing,” Taylor says.

History and Organization: The House of Rock opened in January 2005, after the Taylors asked Harrison County’s Fiscal Court to help with funding. While the couple faced some opposition over the idea of public money going to a private enterprise, the court ultimately recognized that local kids needed a safe place to go, and it authorized funds. “The county knew it would take more money to do it themselves than to have us do it,” Taylor says.

The Taylors run their own business, the Rock Fitness Center, and used part of that facility for the club. Some parents were initially skeptical, Taylor says, because they thought the House of Rock would be like an adult club, but the couple overcame local concerns by inviting citizens in to see how the center worked. The House of Rock has two security guards on staff during dances.

Youth Served: The House of Rock serves middle school and high school students on alternate weekend nights. On an average weekend night, Taylor says, 60 to 75 middle school youth come to the center, as do 30 to 150 high school students. She admits it’s more challenging to draw the older kids, as she’s often competing with parties where there is alcohol. She entices high school youth with big events, such as a homecoming dance.

Staff: The House of Rock is staffed by fitness center employees. Some teens work at the snack bar. Taylor hires a youth DJ to cut costs and give kids an opportunity to earn money.

Funding: Taylor says it costs about $600 to run the House of Rock for a weekend, and the county provides enough funding for about three weekends a month. She says she and her husband cover the remaining costs. Kids pay a $5 cover fee for the dances. Taylor says if a youth really can’t afford the fee, she waives it.

Indicators of Success: It wasn’t difficult to get kids to come to the House of Rock, Taylor says. “When we first opened, it was exciting, because kids had had no place to go,” she says. She admits that older youth are harder to keep interested, both because of their extracurricular involvement at school and the lure of alcohol at parties, which isn’t allowed at the center.

“The middle school kids are predictable,” she notes. “It’s always the same number of kids. For high school kids, it has to be something big to draw a crowd.”

Phoenix Kids Café and Youth Center
Waverly, N.Y.
(607) 565-9388

The Approach: Although it’s overseen by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tioga County, N.Y., the Phoenix Kids Café is very much youth-run. The hangout grew out of a survey two years ago of area teens, who said they wanted some place to go after school.

“A lot of the initial brainstorming was done by kids,” says the cooperative extension’s nutrition program manager, Jennifer Jones. She says the teens make the rules for conduct at the center. “If someone acts out, it’s helpful to have a teen tell them they’re not following the rules, rather than having it imposed by adults,” Jones says.

While kids come to the café to socialize, do homework, watch movies, play video games, use the computers and enjoy snacks, the cooperative extension also offers programs on such subjects as nutrition (where kids cook), job skills and community service projects. Last summer, some of the teens worked at the local community garden and sold their produce through a farmer’s market. The money went back to the café for a field trip to an amusement park.

Jones says the cooperative extension staffers who oversee the café don’t force kids to participate in the programs. “Some kids love them,” she says. “Others need some coaxing.”

History and Organization: The café has been open for just over a year. It’s part of a national kids’ café program sponsored by ConAgra Foods and America’s Second Harvest. The café is housed in a historic pharmacy building, in an area of downtown Waverly that is undergoing revitalization. The landlord leases the space to the cooperative extension for a small fee, Jones says. She says one positive side effect of the café is that “it has brought life back to the downtown area.”

Youth Served: The café is open to seventh- through 12th-graders and has 85 members. Members and their parents must sign an agreement to abide by the rules.

On an average day, Jones says, the center serves 20 to 25 kids. “There’s definitely a core group,” she says. Most of the youth are in 10th grade or younger.

Staff: The café is staffed by cooperative extension employees, mainly nutrition staff.

Funding: Jones estimates that it costs $60,000 a year to run the café. A $30,000 grant from ConAgra Foods and America’s Second Harvest got the café up and running with some kitchen equipment and staff. The café has also relied on funding from the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. The main source of current funding is a three-year grant from ConAgra Foods. The county’s youth bureau, Hunger Prevention Nutrition Assistance Program, and several local community groups also provide funds.

Indicators of Success: It’s hard to say, since the café has been open for only a short time. Jones says the cooperative extension has successfully garnered community support for the café. Volunteer contractors and tradespeople, for example, helped to renovate the building, and local media coverage helped to draw kids to the hangout. “Getting kids to come was the biggest challenge,” she says.

The Neutral Zone
Ann Arbor, Mich.
(734) 214-9995

The Approach: “This is a youth-run and youth-directed teen center with the support of adults,” declares Martha Bloom, vice president of programs for the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. While the community foundation helped to get The Neutral Zone off the ground, today the center is a separate nonprofit.

Occupying two floors of an old brick warehouse downtown, The Neutral Zone is both an informal hangout and a place for dedicated programs initiated and run by teens. Those programs include an on-site recording studio known as Youth Owned Records, where teens can record and produce music for sale and distribution. Poetry is also big at the center, which regularly sponsors poetry slams that Bloom says draw as many as 1,000 teens.

Of course, teens can just watch TV, use the computers, play pool or buy food from the snack bar. The space is big enough, Bloom says, to accommodate both the kids participating in organized programming and those just hanging out.

The key to The Neutral Zone’s success, Bloom says, is “keeping true to the youth-driven concept. … It’s the only way you’ll keep the kids engaged.”

The Neutral Zone’s 19-member board of directors includes nine teens, while a teen advisory council reviews and approves all programs for the center and awards grants to approved programs.

“The big challenge,” Bloom says, “is allowing youth to develop their ideas and keep adults in check.”

History and Organization: The Neutral Zone grew out of a grass-roots effort by teens and parents, who got support from local community organizations, police and businesses. After holding teen events at various locations in 1998, the kids decided they wanted a space to call their own. With support and funding from the youth council of the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, The Neutral Zone eventually found its place in an old warehouse close to the city’s bus line.

Youth Served: The center is designed for high school-aged youth and has 221 registered members. Membership is free, and members receive discounts on The Neutral Zone’s special events, like concerts and poetry slams. Program Director Lori Roddy (an adult) says 25 to 50 teens drop in every day after school, and 75 to 250 kids come for Saturday night concerts. She estimates that 17,000 kids come through the doors each year, most of them 10th- to 12th-graders.

Kids pay a $50 fee to participate in the center’s music or leadership programs, but Roddy says the center provides scholarships for those who can’t afford it.

Roddy says that because of the youth-driven nature of the center, it’s easy to keep kids interested and involved all the way through high school. She admits that getting the next generation of teens through the doors can be a challenge.

“We do a recruiting program each year,” she says, “and kids recruit younger people because they want to see The Neutral Zone keep going. We’ve made it through a couple generations” of teens aging into young adulthood and moving on.

Staff: Adult staff members work in a supporting role, with positions funded by The Neutral Zone’s board. The center also employs teen interns.

Funding: The Neutral Zone got its start with a $25,000 grant from the youth council of the Ann Arbor Community Foundation and $50,000 in donations from corporate and individual donors in the community. Today, the center receives some funding from the city and county, but still relies largely on individual donations and grants. It costs about $500,000 a year to run the center, Bloom estimates.

Indicators of Success: The fact that The Neutral Zone is thriving after eight years attests to its continued relevance to local teens. “The interest in what goes on there tends to overcome skepticism on the part of teens,” Bloom says. “The recording studio is a big deal, and the place is jammed when they have poetry slams.”

Foster City, Calif.
(650) 286-3395

The Approach: While many teen centers struggle to attract older teens, The VIBE doesn’t contend with that concern, because it exists in a community with one junior high school and no high school. Located in a small town of 29,000, The VIBE doesn’t have the scale or depth of a place like The Neutral Zone. But like The Neutral Zone, it also grew out of a grass-roots effort by teens who wanted something to do out of school.

At The VIBE they find pool tables, foosball, air hockey, table tennis, basketball, TV and Playstation and Nintendo games, and a snack bar called The Grub Shop. The center is open every day after school until 7 p.m., and on Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.

While the atmosphere is informal, Foster City Recreation Coordinator Tiffany Hall says, “Most of the time we have an organized activity going on.” The activities include cooking classes, movies, and pool, pingpong and basketball tournaments. Field trips by the center’s boys and girls clubs let teens hang out with kids and an adult adviser of their own gender.

The youths decide on programs and activities, and can participate in a summer training program to become counselors at The VIBE. “The challenge is to keep activities relevant, so kids don’t get bored,” Hall says.

Hall says she keeps in touch with the school system in several ways, such as by attending PTA meetings and maintaining a good relationship with the junior high school principal, to make sure the school helps steer youth toward The VIBE. The center also holds a special “sneak peek” event for fifth-graders each year to introduce them to the center.
To be part of The VIBE, teens must pay a one-time $25 registration fee and sign a rules and regulations contract, as do their parents.

History and Organization: The VIBE grew out of a survey developed by the Foster City Council’s Youth Advisory Committee in 1998. The committee, which is made up of about 30 teenagers, noted that Foster City teens felt there wasn’t much for kids to do in their small town. They wanted their own hangout. The city council approved funding for a youth center, which was initially located in an old library and is now in a temporary modular structure. The VIBE opened in 1999 and is overseen by Foster City’s Recreation Department.

Youth Served: The VIBE is open to kids from sixth through 12th grades, but serves mostly sixth- through eighth-graders. The VIBE has high school night every Saturday, with bands and dancing. “We wanted high school kids,” says Hall, “but we knew we wouldn’t get them if they had to be with middle school kids.”

Hall says anywhere from 15 to 60 kids will drop in on a typical weekday, and about 150 come in on weekends.

Staff: The VIBE is staffed by the Recreation Department, with assistance from youth volunteers and counselors.

Funding: Hall says it costs about $60,000 a year to run The VIBE, which is funded by the Recreation Department.

Indicators of Success: “When we first opened, The VIBE was a big deal,” says Hall. “This is a small town, so there are a lot of organized sports, but there was no place for a hangout.” Attendance at The VIBE has been steady over the last six years, which she attributes largely to recruitment efforts through the schools and word-of-mouth on the part of kids.

“We’re really fortunate that kids are still coming,” Hall says. “We get to know the kids really well, because this isn’t a very big town, and we get ideas from them.”