News

High hopes for teen center 'to connect'

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

Federal Way’s high schoolers are close to having a place in town to go for interesting activities, homework help and live music.

After repeatedly hearing from the older teenagers in town that there isn’t enough to do here, the Federal Way Boys and Girls Club has taken it upon themselves to build a teen center, said Federal Way Mayor Dean McColgan, who is on the club’s board.

To ensure the center, called EX3 (Explore, Experience, Excite), is interesting and relevant, club administrators will have teenagers provide the ideas for programming.

That system and an enthusiastic staff have proven successful for the Old Firehouse Teen Center in Redmond, an almost 12-year-old teen center and all-ages music venue that receives almost 20,000 teen visits a year.

While the Firehouse is somewhat different –– it’s funded out of the city of Redmond’s Parks and Recreation Department rather than from a non-profit organization and corporate sponsorship –– it follows a similar philosophy.

Old Firehouse program coordinator Shannon Roach said there are several factors playing into its success. Key, she said, is staff members who are able to communicate with kids and who know what’s going on in teen culture.

“It’s really clear when people are going to connect with young people,” she said.

It seems like whenever teenagers complain there’s nothing to do, adults are quick to point out teens today have a wealth of entertainment they didn’t have when they were young.

But some teenagers don’t tap into school sports or extracurricular activities, and they don’t participate in church groups. Their interests lie in areas their parents might not understand or relate to, like music, gaming or art.

Rather than allowing those teenagers to fly under the radar, the Old Firehouse offers them a place to learn about and enjoy their interests –– while also ensuring they’re not getting into dangerous drugs, alcohol or self-destructive behaviors.

“They’re pushing boundaries. That’s kind of their jobs as teenagers. They’re learning to be adults,” Roach said, adding the Firehouse allows them to do all that “but still stay safe.”

Shelley Puariea, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs in Auburn and Federal Way, said EX3 will be “really focused on guidance and helping students go on to higher education.”

“It’s not fun and games any more,” she said. “We realize we’re really needing to focus on getting kids to finish high school.”

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any fun at the Federal Way teen center. Puariea said the Boys and Girls Club will be working with local teen boards to make sure the center provides things teens want to do.

“We’ll really be working with teens to see what they want,” she said.

Part of the programming success at the Old Firehouse in Redmond is getting the kids involved, from coming up with the ideas to promoting them at school and among their friends.

Last April, the Firehouse offered vocal lessons taught by the lead singer of a local pop band, the basics of music arrangement taught by a member of another local band, hands-on recording taught by the lead engineer at the Vera Project in Seattle, and documentary film-making and music video-making taught by a man who has worked in audio and video in Seattle and Japan.

Art projects are always popular, Roach said; silkscreening “is a really big idea right now.”

One of the staff members at the Old Firehouse has kids excited about a program called circuit-bending. During the class, he shows kids how to rewire toys that make noise with a few basic electronic parts so they make different and strange noises. “It’s a cheap, fun thing for the kids to do –– and they spend hours doing it,” Roach said.

Some teens have made countless buttons with the inexpensive button machine at the Firehouse, and others have enjoyed participating in the poetry workshops. Staff have taken the kids on walking field trips to Value Village or to 7-11 to get Slurpees.

“Mostly, it’s just spending time with the kids. We do a lot of things that are silly and fun,” Roach said. “You have to hook the kids with something they want to do.”

In addition to providing fun activities, the Old Firehouse serves as a line of defense against teenagers falling into bad decisions. It offers regular discussions on drugs, sexuality and grades, among other things, to teach kids to make smart decisions. A counselor who works at the Firehouse also offers one-on-one counseling for the kids. Having someone available can be a better option for some kids than talking to counselors at school or to their parents.

“This is a place where kids are comfortable already,” Roach said.

In addition, Firehouse staff keep a lookout for kids who haven’t asked for help, but who look like they might be needing it. If a Firehouse staff member sees a kid who might be trying drugs or starting a dangerous habit, like cutting, he or she can introduce the teen to the counselor.

“We have a really good relationship with the kids, so we can see when a kid starts making dangerous decisions,” Roach said. “A lot of times we’ll see things in kids that mom and dad don’t see.

“We’re a preventive program,” she added. “We’re giving them something healthful to do. If they’re watching shows or competing in a video game competition, we know they’re not doing drugs.”

McColgan said the center in Federal Way will provide a way for teenagers to participate in activities that interest them without getting into trouble.

“Sometimes it doesn’t take too long for a teenager to go the wrong way,” McColgan said. “It’s such a volatile age. Sometimes the decisions you make when you’re 16 or 17 stay with you the rest of your life.”

Puariea said the current Federal Way Boys and Girls Club focuses on elementary children, but she said older teens have found a place there, too.

“Many come to the club and say they probably would have dropped out of school and gotten involved with the wrong group of kids,” she said. “We welcome them. We like them to come. We need their help.

“Once they start coming, it becomes like a neighborhood,” she added. “They come every day because that’s where they want to be.”

She said EX3 will meet a need Federal Way teenagers have had for a long time. “It’s a place to go instead of going home and being alone. Or going somewhere and hanging out,” she said. “It really, really makes a big difference in kids’ lives.”

While the programming for EX3 hasn’t been finalized, McColgan said there are some old standards he expects will be offered at the center, like career development, computer literacy, SAT and college preparation and arts and music. A music studio with acoustics designed for live music is also planned.

The center includes a 2,000-square-foot learning lounge, a computer room, and a meeting room where teens can get homework help.

A cafe will provide classes and employment for kids interested in going into the food industry.

McColgan said the project has received a significant amount of corporate support because of its focus on older youth. “It’s a concept that resonates with a lot of companies’ goals,” he said. “There’s a lot of support. I think that’s what’s going to make a difference. That means there are a lot of people who are going to do everything they can to see it succeed.

“This is an important piece of the community,” he said. “It provides one opportunity for kids to be more involved in things they want to do at that age. We’re not going to be able to reach everybody, but this is as close as we’re going to get.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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