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Making good choices: Teen center fosters ‘healthy lifestyle skills’

Candace H. Johnson-For Shaw Media
Kyra George, 11, and Brent Robertson, 13, play air hockey at the Warren Township Teen Center in Gurnee.
Candace H. Johnson-For Shaw Media Kyra George, 11, and Brent Robertson, 13, play air hockey at the Warren Township Teen Center in Gurnee.

It’s “unplugged hour” at the Warren Township Teen Center, but the group of kids seated in a circle in the center’s great room aren’t bored without their cellphones.

Director Joe Doyle hands out different colored playing cards and stands in the center of the circle, explaining the ground rules for “Werewolf,” a new game the kids are playing, as rain drums against the windows and roof.

“If you show your card to anyone, the game won’t be as fun,” he warns. “So if you have a blue card, you’re a –”

“Werewolf,” the kids chorus.

“If you have a red card, you’re a –”

“Fortune teller!”

“And if you have a green card, you’re a –”


Immediately, the room erupts into noise as the game begins and the kids begin the process of identifying and eliminating villagers and werewolves until one group emerges victorious.

Doyle has been working for the Teen Center since 2006 and said coming to work every day is a pleasure for him.

“I’ve had a great experience here,” he said. “I love coming to work every day, so that’s really why I continue to do it. It’s very rewarding.”

The center is available to children in sixth through 12th grades, welcoming preteens as well as teenagers, and operates on a drop-in basis Monday through Friday. Kids sign themselves in and out of the center – a factor, Doyle said, that is “geared toward teaching them responsibility and accountability and fostering that communication between them and their parents.”

While teens are at the center, they have the freedom to participate in daily structured activities, work on homework, speak with a staff member for guidance or advice or simply hang out with friends and have fun. As stated on its website, the mission of the Teen Center is “to support local youth by providing them with a safe, supervised and social environment which promotes skills for a healthy lifestyle.”

The center opened in June 2000, and since its opening, Warren Township Supervisor Suzanne Simpson said the community has embraced it fully.

Simpson said the idea for the center was a “no-brainer.”

“We had so many kids on the playground and issues with children of that age getting into mischief,” she said. “There was nothing for them to do between the time they got out of school and the time their parents got home.”

A second teen center was opened in Park City a couple of years later after a teen-involved shooting, and Simpson said there have been no incidents since then. Simpson encourages other communities to adopt similar programs to prevent teen- and gang-related crimes from increasing in their neighborhoods.

“I think it would be very helpful in communities that don’t have anything for youth to do,” she said. “I think that a lot of gang activities start when there’s nothing else for kids to do or a place to go for kids that age.”

Doyle and his team of staff, volunteers and interns strive to create a welcoming, judgment-free atmosphere where kids can interact with each other and flourish in a setting away from any of the social pressures or problems they may be experiencing at school. The staff checks in with each child at least once when he or she arrives at the teen center – sometimes more frequently if the child is struggling with some kind of challenge they need help working through.

“We have kids who really don’t judge each other,” he said. “It’s awesome to see. They’ll say, ‘Well, at school this happened,’ and we can’t really do much about school, but [we’ll] just talk about how to treat each other in general and hopefully that spills over into school.”

Alexi Ragans-Stauffer began working at the Teen Center as an intern six years ago while completing her degree. When her internship ended, she joined the program as a staff member. Now she is the assistant director.

“I really believe in this program, and I had to be a part of it,” she said.

Doyle strongly encourages his team to share their passions with the children. His team’s passions and backgrounds, he said, play a large part in shaping the programming at the teen center and help ignite similar passions in the children. Over the course of its existence, the center has had cooking classes, music programs and graphic design.

“Who better to teach the kids than somebody who’s passionate about what they’re teaching,” he said. “And it all really fits into the mission statement. It all goes back to the healthy lifestyle skills that they’re learning even if they don’t realize it.”

To that effect, Ragans-Stauffer organizes arts and crafts activities for the teens to share her love of artistic expression and creativity. Her approach, she said, is very hands-off: She provides the project’s medium – paints, clay, etc. – and the theme before stepping back to allow the kids to express themselves in their art.

“I let them really figure out their own style,” she said. “I don’t think art should be directed because I think it’s a good way for kids to reflect on themselves and see their individuality with everything.”

As a drop-in center, the program has a few kids it sees only once or twice throughout the year, however, Doyle said the majority of the kids return year after year as they progress through middle school and into high school. Some of these kids even return to the center in college for internships or become staff members themselves, becoming mentors and friends for the next generation of teens coming through the center. Doyle said four or five members of his staff were once members of the center.

Located in the cluster of buildings at the Warren Township Center, the Teen Center is a two-story building consisting of a small computer center, a “quiet room” for homework, a great room equipped with a pool table and kitchen/snack station and a game room with board games the kids can check out at their leisure. A loft area overlooking the great room houses several flat-screen TVs and gaming consoles where both kids and team members can play their favorite video games.

“We have some staff who are gamers that really connect with the kids,” Doyle said. “And I encourage staff who don’t play [video games]. I’m like, ‘Hey, go outside your comfort zone.’ Just like the staff who don’t really play football or basketball, I tell them the same thing. Go out there and show the kids, ‘Hey, I’m not good at this, but I’m gonna try. Because I’m gonna show you that even though you’re not good at it, you don’t have to be good at it to do it. Try. Have fun.’ ”

Doyle adds that video games and computer usage is interspersed with projects and structured indoor and outdoor activities to limit the teens’ screen time every day.

A large part of what Doyle tries to do is teach kids to build one another up rather than tear each other down.

“Personally, when I’m having a bad day, I’m like, ‘All right I gotta go do something nice for somebody,’ ” he said. “Outside of work, I’ll go to one of my neighbors and just help them out because that makes me feel better. And I try to pass that on to kids and teach them: When you’re down [and] you help somebody else, you will get picked up. That’s how we do it. Not by putting somebody else down.”

Ragans-Stauffer said this mentality and the positive, interactive atmosphere of the program was what made her decide to stay at the center after her internship. One of the most rewarding parts of her job, she said, is watching a child discover who he or she is as a person and playing a role in that process.

“What I love most about my job here is just being able to be part of a program that gives kids the opportunity to figure out who they are without necessarily all the social pressure that they might have at home or school or just hanging out with their friends,” she said. “This is a place for them to come and hang out and really be themselves and develop as a person. Really I think my favorite thing is just being able to help steer them in the right direction.”

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