COLUMBIA CITY — Since its doors opened in 2005, The Center for Whitley County Youth has had a mission to promote positive youth developement.
The two men leading the charge are Program Director Todd Blanton along with Exectuive Director Jeff Wike.
Blanton said, “We want to come along side of the students, stand with them and mentor them. All our programs are based on that.”
Although programming and activities is what brings students in the door, Blanton said that the overall goal is to bridge the gap and allow for volunteers and staff to create a safe environment for the students.
“We tell our volunteers to pour in to no more than three or four kids. Any more than that and they won’t be able to really spend time with them and invest in them,” Blanton said.
The Center has seen growth and changes. One of the biggest milestones for the organization was the purchase of its current building. In December, the nonprofit bought the building, located on the corner of W. Market St. and W. Chauncet St., from Community of Hope Church.
The group also has claim to a few awards. In 2006, The Center was named the “Jewel of the Community” by the area Chamber of Commerece. The Center received recognition from the Northeast Region of the Governor’s Commission for a Drug-Free Indiana and was given the Best Program award in 2008. And in 2011, The Center was one out of five winners that was named, “Show Us Your Results” Challenge Winner by the Dekko Foundation.
The Center is not just about a safe, clean and supervised environment. It provides a practical and educational purpose as well.
After School Central is a program for middle school students. Indian Springs Middle School can bus students from school to The Center. Free snacks are provided daily to students, as well as at least an hour of recreational time in the gym, game room and computer lab.
Education and enrichment happens during “Options” and “Homework Time,” which is two 30 minute blocks of time for various opportunities, including homework help or creativity classes such as art classes, service projects, guitar lessons, fitness training, small group discussions and a variety of other activities.
After-School Serve is offered to high school students who have gone through an application and interview process. While middle school students are taking advantage of After School Central, high schoolers are working with volunteers to run concessions, provide homework help, supervision and various other projects and responsibilities. This teaches them job skills, maturity, service and teamwork.
Blanton said that because teens are hungry for connection, The Center works to create an environment that fosters positive relationships.
“We’re losing those real life interactions. Parents are having to deal with so much because of economic demands. Sometimes students get up and have breakfast by themselves, go to school, come home, eat dinner and go to bed without any adult interaction. They get on the internet for a couple of hours, but that isn’t really fitting the bill. We can provide that interaction. The Center is a place for teens to come and know that there are people here they can see face to face and know that someone cares,” said Blanton.
Another program The Center provides is RealLife which takes place on Friday nights from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. This is limited to a small group of about 20 teens who have a home cooked meal and take part in a setting that allows for open discussion on the issues they are facing.
Then, at 8 p.m. NightLife takes place. That is three hours of safe, supervised entertainment and recreation just for high schoolers.
Blanton said that last year, the program saw more than 100 students each Friday night from more than 15 different school systems.
But all these programs cost time and money. Blanton said that The Center could not do all that it does without the support of the organization’s board of directors. Without government assistance and funding, the organization depends on local foundations and grants to foot the bill.
“We experienced the budget crunch that everyone has felt. The other foundations that support us are hit, too. The board is amazing and they continue to go out and spread the word. That is the unique and amazing about The Center. There are two staff here and it definitely takes more than two of us to get everything done. It’s only because the board and the community sees the need and wants help and let other people know what we are doing that we continue to be successful,” Blanton said.
Teens rely on The Center to be a safe haven for them when it comes to facing the issues of life and the pressures they face. Blanton said that there is a need for teens to have an outlet even in a small town like Columbia City.
“There is a mind set that because we are a small community that what goes on in the world doesn’t present a threat here. Eveything you think is happening is happening in Columbia City, too. We can’t live in a naive bubble. Parents and adults have to know that our teens struggle with big things,”said Blanton.
With adult volunteers providing the bulk of the man power for activites and supervision, Blanton said that The Center is careful to take certain precautions.
“We do oreinetation and training for our volunteers. Volunteer training is on going to help them know how to deal with issues the students face. We do background checks and call references for our volunteers. We have proceedures and rules that are set in order to protect the volunteers and the students. But seriously, it doesn’t take a special skill to volunteer. All it takes is someone being willing to step in and care about the students and really mean it.”
Blanton also said that as the school year starts, The Center will be partnering with the Bowen Center and with other community groups.
“We want to be a pool for people to fish in. We’re not here to compete with other youth groups or organizations, but we are here to bridge that gap and work together,” Blanton said.
With so many programs to choose from, a parent or gaurdain might be surprised to know that the activities and after school events are free.
Blanton said that most parents want to know that their child is going to be well surpervised. He said that most times The Center offers a better adult-to-teen ratio than students have in school.
Tony and Jessica Kaiser are a husband and wife volunteer team. Together, they work at The Center because they see it is a valuable place for teens.
Tony said, “The reason I volunteer is to have a growing bond with the youth and to show them the love of God. Also, to be a positive mentor in their lives as they transition into adults.”
“The Center is a fun place to hang out with friends, maybe even make some new ones, and it is a safe place to be,” said Jessica. “I love the relationships I make with the kids there and the opportunity to act out the love of Jesus. Plus, for just one night, I get to feel like I’m in high school again.”
Blanton said that although the organization is faith based, that should not be a hinderance for any parent or teen to get involved.
He said, “ The things we do and say are founded on faith, but we don’t want to force anybody into anything.”
When it comes to his work at The Center, Blanton is there because he witnesses the reward from his efforts.
“When I graduated college, coming to work for a small nonprofit wasn’t the plan. But I get to see, first hand, the life changes in teens. That makes it all worth it,” said Blanton.
“I get to see where some teens come from and watch as they grow into their potential. It would be tough for me to do anything else. Changing the directon and course of a teen’s life is way more important than anything I could do.”