Teen Central offers ‘hangout’ for BG tweens

Shena Stayden and Shena Stayden

A tragic string of teen suicides resulted in the collaboration between volunteers from the University, BG Parks and Recreation, the Institute for Child and Family Policy and United Way (AmeriCorps) to brainstorm ways to prevent this heartbreaking phenomenon from growing any larger only three, short years ago.

These clutch collaborative efforts have resulted in a space appropriately named Teen Central, that local tweens (junior high students ages 10-14 years) can call their own. The city donated the Veteran’s Building located in City Park to volunteers in response to a research report conducted by the Institute for Child and Family Policy published in March 2007.

The report was based on information from a survey that was circulated to 421 tweens and data from eight, six to eight member focus groups within the Bowling Green Junior High School.

The research found over half of junior high students feel as if there is nothing to do in Bowling Green and 80 percent admitted to feeling pressured by friends to participate in unsafe or illegal activities.

Sean Watkins, a graduate student and Teen Central mentor and Advisory Board member, said Bowling Green wasn’t set up to accommodate the social needs of local teenagers. Teen Central was started to give a space to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have anywhere else to go after school, he said.

‘I know that there were quite a few students in the high school that committed suicide over the span of a few years and that directly led to the start of the teen center,’ Watkins said. ‘These deaths are definitely an important part of our origins but we prefer to focus on the positive aspects of getting kids together and providing a safe space for them to interact.’

Teen Central opened its doors to students officially on Sept. 17, 2007, and has proven to be a safe and positive response to the community outcry over the teen suicides several years ago, said Esther Krueger, assistant program coordinator for the Teen Center.

The center is run exclusively by volunteer work, which ranges from individual volunteers to volunteers from AmeriCorp and United Way to the Chapman Learning Community on campus, while approximately 42 of these volunteers are students.

These volunteer mentors serve an important role in the lives of junior high students, especially since they are at an age where self expression takes a second place position due to their strong desire to belong and feel as if they are a part of their peer group, Krueger said.

Lizzie Keller, senior and Teen Central mentor, volunteers her time in order to service the need of having a positive role model in the lives of these junior high students.

‘We’re their friends. We’re somebody who is on their side,’ Keller said. ‘We do our best to do what they want to do, when they want to do it, and not pass judgment on them or tell them how or who they should be. The only time we really tell them what to do is in order to keep them safe, either physically or emotionally.’

Although the Teen Center serves as a type of medium for tweens to communicate with their peers and young adult mentors, this non-traditional classroom atmosphere offers more than just a space for after school congregation.

The dual role of the mentor is to be a positive role model and educator. The teen center provides these students with an interactive forum where they can discuss social obstacles such as friendships, relationships and stereotypes.

‘Our young students have asked our mentors questions about their lifestyles,’ Krueger said. ‘And it’s neat because the mentors can take that time to break down the stereotypes.’

Krueger said the male mentors hold a unique position in the minds of all the students who come to the center. Male or female, she said, the junior high students really take to the image of a positive young adult male role model who is confident in the way he chooses to express himself.

‘Especially our male mentors. They are just the coolest,’ Krueger said. ‘Seventh and eighth grade students, boys, girls, they all just love them. Because they are 18- to19-year-old young men and how often do you get to see young men be such positive role models in these kids’ lives?’

According to Joe Zabowski, principal of Bowling Green Junior High School, Teen Central fills a void for some of the students who do not participate in extracurricular activities and who also need a place to go during the critical hours from 3 – 6 p.m. when there is no adult supervision.

‘It makes them feel a part of something,’ Zabowski said. ‘A positive identity, that is healthy and productive. With these skills they can better participate in educational and social settings.”