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Towns Strive to Give Teens a Place of Their Own

More communities eye youth centers as a positive way to reach kids outside of school

When Mary Jenkins, director of the New Outlook Teen Center in Exeter, N.H., opened the mail recently, she found an anonymous gift of $1,000 in an envelope.

The gift of cold, hard cash in a time of tight budgets was one of many small triumphs for Mrs. Jenkins. Her efforts, and those of thousands of other youth workers around the United States, have led to a burgeoning movement to establish more youth and teen centers for after-school and weekend activities.

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"There are so many one-parent families and couples with two careers now," Jenkins says, "that kids need a place to go after school. Many of these kids are not joiners, not top-notch in academics or athletics, so afternoon school activities aren't for them."

Rising crime rates among urban and rural youth, plus shifting family dynamics, have sharply focused the need for more centers. After-school hours are critical for youths, often cited as a time period that is "unstructured, unsupervised, and unproductive," says a 1992 Carnegie Corp. study. A study by Texas A&M University concluded that structured after-school programs for at-risk children can also improve academic performance.

Some national organizations, like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, or the Police Athletic League (PAL), have served local youth for decades.

But they are expanding at a rapid clip. Last year, the Boys and Girls Clubs alone added 180 sites, and doubled in size to 1,600 sites in 10 years. On Montana's Lame Deer reservation, more than 900 youths have joined the clubs since 1994.

"We want to get the kids that are unaffiliated and unattached," says Bill Stoddard, the director of an older PAL gym in the South Boston area now undergoing a renovation in response to youth needs.

Youth centers come with a price tag, and many compete for funding with traditional town services and expenditures. Corporate partnership and volunteer efforts often help keep the centers open. Most Boys and Girls Club sites charge each youth a modest annual fee.

Uphill battle

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But proving the need is still often an uphill battle. In Exeter, the town voted approval of $50,000 for the teen center in early 1996, but voted against providing $35,000 for 1997.

"We lost by only 42 votes," says Jenkins, who has since stepped down as director. "Everybody thinks this is a rich little town," she says, citing the presence of the prestigious prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy. "Yet there are plenty of kids here who have had a shortage of activities for years." The center serves 20 to 30 youths a day, and does not charge fees.

Stan Jennings, now 20, participated in the activities of the New Outlook Center for four years while he went to high school. "It was a great place," he says. "It kept me out of trouble, and I did better in school."

When he heard that 1,048 townspeople had voted to support the center, but 1,090 had voted against it, he wrote a fund-raising letter. "It's called the 35K Challenge," Jenkins says. "Stan asked 1,000 people to each give $35. So far 170 people have sent checks to keep the center going." Meanwhile, the local hospital gave $10,000 and the county agreed to give another $10,000.

Years of effort

In Weymouth, Mass., a town of 55,000, a youth center is several months away from finally opening its doors after nearly six years of planning. "Four students have been on our planning committee since Day 1," says Lynne Sager, chairwoman of the Teen Facility Development Committee. "For years they have said there was no place to go and nothing to do in Weymouth."

When the police department moved, Gloria Burke, the director of Youth and Family Services in Weymouth, negotiated for the old, two-story building. "We had the cells taken out," she says, "and a number of local unions have generously donated so much time and labor to renovate it."

On the second floor the youth center will offer a snack bar, TV, a room for ping pong and pool, a big room for dances, a quiet room, a health and fitness room, and opportunities for leadership training and job placement.

"What I like about this," says Ms. Burke, "is that we are coming together and saying we care about the quality of life in our town for youths and families." Center advocates say $30,000 to $40,000 will be needed each year to operate the center.

In the metropolitan area of Phoenix, Ariz., six Boys and Girls Clubs of the East Valley serve about 4,000 youth a year, including an Indian reservation. One of the sites is being supported by a three-year, $66,000 grant from the Taco Bell Foundation, which has a $15 million program to reach at-risk teens.

"We are supported by individual and corporate contributions, funds from United Way and special events," says Kristen Bruskas, director of marketing and communications for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Arizona.

Recently some 250 volunteers from Intel Corp. in Phoenix helped with a major renovation of one of the sites, including a new computer lab. "It was around a $400,000 project," says Ms. Bruskas, "all done with donated materials and labor."

Bruskas and others close to at-risk youth work see a society that is recognizing punishment as only a limited response to youth offenders. "We live in a difficult society," she says, "and we have to do more to empower youth to be more successful."

Depending on the size of the centers around the country, success is measured differently. "We follow the kids closely," says Colette McNally, director of Prevention and Teen Services for the various East Valley Boys and Girls Clubs in Phoenix. "They come as small kids, and grow up in the clubs. Some are trained as junior staff members, and then come back to be mentors, tutors, and group leaders for the summer camp programs."

In Exeter, Jenkins measures success by a hood ornament. "We had a kid in the program who used to steal hood ornaments off cars," she says. "I have a beat-up old Mercedes, and the boy confessed to me that my car's was the first one he didn't steal, because he liked me, and that helped him to stop doing it on other cars."

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