Summer is typically the “quiet” time at the Oregon Youth Center, when school lets out and the weather warms up, OYC director Diane Newlin said.
But this year, the building has been a hive of activity as fifth through ninth graders in the Oregon School District dropped by the new space everyone seems to be buzzing about.
“This is crazy,” Rome Corners Intermediate School sixth grader Cash Weaver-Larson said while eyeing up his shot playing pool at the OYC Aug. 23. “The old building could fit on the basketball court.”
The 11 year old’s estimation is fairly accurate regarding the building’s jump from nearly 2,500 square feet – about a half-sized basketball court – to 6,000 square feet. And like many other kids, he’s been inviting all his friends to come check it out.
“It’s something that the kids can be proud of and are excited to show their friends and family,” Newlin said. “They are loving the space they waited so patiently for.”
Attendance doubled from an average of about 16 kids per day in February, when kids temporarily met at Hillcrest Bible Church during construction, to about 35 kids in June, the first full month the new youth center building opened at 110 N. Oak St., Newlin told the Observer. She anticipates numbers will increase to about 50 kids during the school year.
Daytime summer hours switched to after-school hours this week – from 3-6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. on days with no school and half days.
There are also weekly and monthly activities that extend beyond those hours, such as homework club, youth and parent yoga, movie nights and alternating girls and boys nights. Newlin said she is looking forward to having community members come in to offer additional programming, such as teaching financial literacy and how to make tasty snacks.
Ultimately, those who have helped build and run the center look at it as a safe place for kids to have a good time.
Oregon Community Resource Network chair Randy Glysch remembers the May 30 ribbon cutting well, especially the looks on the kids’ faces as they filed into the newly finished building – their building.
“It was like Christmas morning,” Glysch said. “The kids rushing in to see what Santa had brought them; a wave of big smiles and amazement, and it was all for them.”
In this case, Santa came in the form of an anonymous donor who contributed $800,000 of the $1 million needed to complete the project – an impressive accomplishment considering the Oregon community had just finished raising close to that amount for a new Oregon Area Food Pantry facility. Supreme Structures also donated its labor to construct the OYC building, just as it did when it built the new food pantry in 2017.
“Raising that extra $200,000 was important to the angel donor and to the OCRN board because it allowed for the community to step up and make this happen,” Glysch said. “We find an important need, ask for their help, and they help us make things happen. We have a very generous community full of wonderful neighbors.”
Room to be kids
Once a dark and disjointed space at the adjacent location, the new youth center has high ceilings and an open layout filled with natural light.
“The open environment often means it’s noisy,” Newlin said. “But kids are noisy; that’s kind of their thing.”
That was the case Aug. 23, when kids participated in a half lock-in program held jointly by the OYC and Oregon Public Library. Kids bumped, set and spiked volleyballs and shot hoops on the half-court basketball area, while several others played nearby with the donated pool, air hockey and foosball tables.
“It’s given the kids more space, no matter what the weather is, to be active,” Kelly Allen, youth services and community engagement librarian, said. “Even with a new library on the horizon, the spaces will still benefit each other. At this age, it’s important for kids to have several free, safe places to go.”
Newlin echoed that point, noting even when it’s nice out and the kids could be playing outside on the new basketball court, they often choose to stay in the building.
“It’s big enough that they don’t feel cramped,” she said. “They can run around and be kids with no expectations to be silent or immaculately clean.”
When conflict does arise, “they have the space and can take time to work up to each other by going in different rooms,” Newlin added.
What is apparent, even before entering the building, is the culture the OYC encourages in the youths.
For example, kids wrote encouraging sayings in permanent marker on the two wooden benches that greet visitors outside the colorful main entrance, such as “Do awesome things with awesome people,” “Live life to the fullest,” “Just be you” and “What would you try if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
The building includes all sorts of useful amenities beyond the recreational areas.
A check-in area features a wall with giant “OYC” letters and dozens of pegs for kids to hang up their coats and backpacks.
Youths can relax in the multiple seating areas with a modular couch, bean bags and chairs at the front of the building to read books or play video games. And a computer lab/conference room near the back of the building provides a quieter space for those who want to do crafts, homework or even paint their nails.
Kids will also be able to connect their Chromebooks to a printer in that space if they need to print off materials for school.
When staff members need to work on the computer or mentor a student, they can meet in the noise dampening office in the center of the building that features floor-to-ceiling windows and a surveillance camera feed to simultaneously keep an eye on the kids inside and their bikes outside, for example. That’s also the place kids can request to play appropriate music from their phones throughout the building using an auxiliary jack.
On the other side of the office are accessible restrooms, a water fountain and bottle filling station and a combination storage and laundry room with a washer and dryer donated by Tri-County Appliance.
To get some energy while playing or doing homework, kids can visit the kitchen for a free bowl of cereal and a sandwich each day, along with other snacks available for purchase.
“The community has responded amazingly to stock the cupboards,” Newlin said, citing food and paper product donations from local churches and the food pantry. She said Kwik Trip has also granted the OYC with $1,000 in gift cards each year, which goes toward bread, meat, cheese, bananas and other fruit to have on hand for the kids. Some parents have donated an instant pot, single-serve coffee maker and toaster in addition to the other new appliances.
“I’m amazed at the generosity of the community,” Allen said.
Just before the half lock-in, OYC and OCRN board member Denise Arnold held a party at the youth center when she retired from her longtime position as Town of Oregon clerk.
Not only was it an opportunity for her to show off the new space to the broader community, but it was also a way to help people understand what the OYC still needs, including more shelving, art supplies and new balls to replace the tired ones.
“Kids are important to me,” Arnold said. “And there are always things the kids need.”
She collected donations for the youth center instead of going away presents, because she knows that it “relies on the generosity of the public” to function.
The building is energy efficient but there is still over twice the area to heat and cool, so utility bills have also increased. Newlin said donations are greatly appreciated and many will go toward operational costs since it’s hard to come by grants that can be used for that purpose. Donations may also go toward purchasing food and additional wireless surveillance cameras inside and outside the building.
Glysch said even though OCRN has handed over the keys to the OYC and is switching gears to its next fundraising project for a multimillion dollar library, there is a “small amount of funds that will go to the OYC for the next few years” to help with operating expenses.
And having talked to some Dane County foundations, Glysch added that there will be “new opportunities for future funding as OYC expands its programming.”
For information about youth center resources, call 886-9093 or visit oregonyouthcenter.org.