A Room of Their Own
Teen center opens to anticipation, elation
BY SUZI STEFFEN
Last February, Terra Williams was pumped. A co-coordinator for LEAD’s teen center committee and a senior at Churchill Alternative High School, she knew that the city had a lot of vacant space, specifically the old fire station under City Hall, and she wanted it for the teen center.
She and her peer Nuestro Lugar/Our Place teen center planners, along with real estate broker John Brown and other locally powerful downtown supporters, went into a meeting with the city staff in late April, only to be told that the fire station wasn’t up to code, wasn’t safe for the teens to move into. Road block.
|LEAD teens (and their siblings) paint the Overpark space
|Nuestro Lugar/Our Place’s name reflects a commitment to welcome youth whose first language is Spanish.
|LEAD encourages outdoor skills like rock-climbing, rafting and snowshoeing.
But the teens of LEAD (Leadership, Education, Adventure and Direction), low-income youth who learn leadership skills and gain support for their educational and career goals, don’t give up easily. Nor do the youth of Positive Youth Development’s Youth Advocacy Board or Juventud FACETA, a group for immigrant teens. It’s not as if the teens in these partner groups haven’t seen adversity before or persisted in the face of daunting odds. So the teen center committee regrouped. The Eugene City Council was, by this time, used to hearing several teen center advocates speak during each public comment session. The youth reminded councilors, professionally and firmly, that the councilors would hear them again and again … and again … and again … until finally, the city of Eugene, in cooperation with Downtown Eugene, Inc., agreed to give Nuestro Lugar a space.
And the space, in Oak Alley under the Overpark and behind the Downtown Athletic Club, wasn’t exactly perfect. Holes in the ceiling, a concrete floor, years of being a storage space — not, perhaps, what the teens would have envisioned for their first center. But again, this group does not give up when faced with obstacles. After all, LEAD had years of experience meeting catch-as-catch-can in apartments, Churchill Alternative, Looking Glass’ Station 7 and other spaces that didn’t belong to LEAD. And partner group Juventud FACETA didn’t exactly have its own space either, having met in people’s homes for several years of its existence. So what if the space was dusty and broken? So what if the walls were dingy? They’d get in there and clear the space, make it welcoming for teens, make it their own.
And, over last summer, they did. LEAD groups and offices moved in last fall, and on Monday, Jan. 22, Nuestro Lugar/Our Place Teen Center opens officially as a space for low-income, multicultural and/or at-risk teens ages 12-17. The grand opening for the public is Friday, Jan. 26 from 6 to 8 pm at 965 Oak Alley. There, everyone can see the quiet table space in which teens do homework with donated textbooks, the computer lab, the space for counseling and mentoring from the adults associated with Nuestro Lugar and, of course, the couches where they can hang out, making friends with other teens who know what it’s like not to have any place to go.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Caleb Pruzynski rediscovered the feeling of having no spot to call his own. The library was closed. School was closed. He had been to the mall with his siblings, where, thanks to a gift from his step-grandparents, he was able to get lunch and buy a T-shirt. “It’s the first clothing I’ve ever bought for myself with my own money,” he said. But that pretty much did it for the gift, and he came downtown for a meeting at Nuestro Lugar. Oops: It, too, was closed. And it was cold outside — though Caleb, a 14-year-old freshman at South Eugene High School, claimed not to feel it. Maybe that was because of his hat, which he wore because on his family’s farm in Walton, the pipes were frozen; he couldn’t get any water for a shower.
When Caleb stood up to speak at the City Council meeting on Jan. 8, Mayor Kitty Piercy smiled and said, “Hi, Caleb!” He’s a polished speaker, looking his audience in the eye and sounding like a student body president in the making with his cadence and ability to paint a picture. He closes his two-minute time with a nod and a reminder that the youth asked the city for a bit more. “It is a beginning to what I feel is needed — and thank you.”
Caleb and 16-year-old Elizabeth Sampedro, who attends Churchill High, are the co-coordinators of Nuestro Lugar now that Terra Williams has aged out of LEAD’s target range. Williams remains a volunteer and, until her schedule at LCC grew maddeningly busy last term, she was a paid intern for LEAD, working on the teen center specifically. But where does Nuestro Lugar get money for its operating costs? Well, like most nonprofit organizations, it runs on donations and grants. And Elizabeth, Caleb and many other teens bear their spokesperson roles well enough that powerful adults find themselves ready to donate more than they would have thought possible.
John Brown, the real estate broker and new EWEB board member who helped the teens interact with the city, remembers when he first heard about the idea of a teen center. He agreed to meet with the teens, but, he says, “I went to the meeting with preconceived notions: I’ll kill this idea in a minute. But when I walked out an hour later, I said I’ll find you a home and I’ll write you a check.” Why? “Have you met Caleb?” he asks. Caleb and Terra Williams “had a plan, were well-spoken and were organized,” Brown says, and they were also “honest, from the heart.”
When the city said no to the fire station, Brown was furious. “It pisses me off!” he says. “What other youth group isn’t afraid of being 200 feet from the police station?” But Brown knows how to deal with reality, and when the Overpark space came open, he looked at the space and helped Nuestro Lugar find contractors who donated their work (John Critelli from Essex Construction and Ethan Hutchinson from Rainbow Valley Design and Construction, among others) and a carpet, donated by Imperial Floor, to warm up the space. One of the reasons Brown likes working with LEAD and Nuestro Lugar is that the whole group, including Executive Director Maj Rafferty, Nuestro Lugar Director D Cohen and two other adult staff members, runs on a shoestring budget, leveraging what they have into direct help for the teens. From REI and SportHill’s clothing, equipment and time donations to FOOD for Lane County and Papa John’s gifts of food for meetings, the teens get what they need. “They make do with what they have,” Brown says admiringly.
That doesn’t mean that the teens don’t aspire to more. Terra Williams, who grew frustrated at the lack of academic counseling available to teens at Churchill Alternative, was grateful for Cohen’s support in applying to LCC and the UO. She’s looking forward to a program, now headed up by LEAD intern Teresa Montes, that will provide higher education counseling and support. Rafferty is excited that LEAD has almost met a $20,000 fundraising challenge; an anonymous donor promised $20,000 if the organization could raise that much in matching donations by Jan. 31. By the end of last week, LEAD was about $2,000 away from its goal and at press time, an source who prefers to remain anonymous told the Weekly that the source would send a check to make up any gaps left by the end of the month.
Sampedro, one of the busiest but most organized teens in the city, is looking toward the long-term future. She’s happy about the programs that Nuestro Lugar will be able to offer to teens, from computer labs and tutoring to dance lessons, self-defense classes and the opportunity to develop leadership skills. “I’m really happy that resources will be more equally distributed between the rich and the poor,” she says, noting that low-income teens rarely get the opportunity to take extra classes. Brown’s also happy about it because he sees the tragedy of letting low-income and at-risk teens fall through the cracks. “If you don’t pay attention to them, they get thrown out with the trash,” he says, and he thinks they deserve better. But Sampedro has a vision of more teen centers, spread across the county, within ten years.
One of the ways Nuestro Lugar helps low-income, multicultural or at-risk youth strive for and accomplish more is the three agreements. Those agreements, central to LEAD philosophy, were also adopted by the teen center committee. First is for anyone taking part in the center to stay in school or, if they’re not in a conventional school, to be actively working towards a GED. Second is to obey the law — not to drink, do drugs, join a gang or otherwise get into trouble. Because both LEAD and Nuestro Lugar believe in social justice, however, there are exceptions for those arrested during civil disobedience actions and those who are in the country without documentation. But the third agreement goes beyond a rule to help the youth reach for their dreams. It’s the “life assignment” piece, in which teens define and actively work on reachable goals in their lives.
Williams says that when she joined LEAD at 16, the agreements helped her focus on her schoolwork, stop drinking and gain confidence in her speaking abilities. And when, early on in her LEAD time, one of her friends died in a car accident, her LEAD group and Rafferty supported her and let her deal with her grief. “I remember that so clearly,” she says. “I took up an hour of LEAD’s time, and people genuinely cared.” Her life assignments right now include being the first person in her family to finish college and, as a LEAD volunteer, being an adult advocate for the LGBTQ community. “It feels really good to have the teen center, to give a safe environment for teens,” she says.
Other LEAD teens note the value of the life assignments. “I was going through life school portion by school portion,” says 14-year-old Ben Ennis, a freshman at the Network Charter School, until his mom found LEAD for him. “It was totally open, everybody greeted me warmly.” Now Ben, whose life assignment is “to learn everything and anything I can about computers and spread that knowledge around,” has set up Nuestro Lugar’s computer lab and plans on replacing the office computers. And, D Cohen notes, Sacred Heart Medical Center donated many computers to LEAD. With Ben’s help, Nuestro Lugar intends to provide rehabilitated computers for the teens to use at home.
Ben’s counterpart on the environmental front is Will Ross, a 17-year-old who attends the Center for Appropriate Transport and is one of two teens from LEAD to take part in the super-tough National Outdoor Leadership School. Will serves as an intern for LEAD during the second half of the school day, and his life assignment, he says, is “to reduce air pollution through the use of bikes rather than cars.” He’s agonized by the fact that people can’t fix their own bikes because they don’t have the knowledge or tools, and that low-income teens can’t spend money on that kind of work either. “I want to build and repair bikes for cheap or maybe free, so I can eliminate all the excuses people have,” he says. A big part of LEAD’s adventure portion, monthly outdoor excursions plus a five-day rafting trip at the end of the year, consists of environmental awareness, and Will is all for it. He took part last year in LEAD’s Plant-a-Thon, which will happen on a grander scale this year (the group has 10,000 trees to plant, with the help of McKenzie River Trust and countless volunteers). An unfinished mural on the wall shows off each component of LEAD, and the “adventure” portion is clearly going to be a celebration of the rafting trip. “I’m too poor for a week-long rafting trip” without LEAD, says Jenna McSween, a 15-year-old sophomore at Wellsprings Friends School who is working hard on the mural. Jenna says she’s been drawing “since I could pick up a crayon,” and as a creative person, her life assignment is to create a magazine for teenagers and publish what teens want to say.
And teens don’t only want to express themselves in English. Nuestro Lugar’s bilingual name reflects a commitment on the part of LEAD and teen center staff to welcome youth whose first language is Spanish. But former co-coordinators Itahi Diaz and Itziri Moreno got busy with school, and Juventud FACETA, whose members range in age up to 24, found a home of its own earlier this year with Amigos Multicultural Services at the old Whiteaker Elementary School. That means the center isn’t quite as bilingual as the three partner groups originally planned. That doesn’t mean LEAD or Nuestro Lugar have given up, though; the Wednesday night LEAD group is bilingual in Spanish and English, and many of the youth and staff members either speak both languages or are working on improving in a second language.
Co-coordinator Elizabeth Sampedro can’t wait to see the effect of Nuestro Lugar spreading throughout the community. “Our main goal is to provide a place that’s supportive, fun and safe, where teens can be themselves, grow in leadership skills and stay away from risk factors like school dropout, being in gangs or engaging in risky sex.” She knows the three agreemants will help with that goal, and she also knows how valuable it is to have the space. She adds, “After so many times of us meeting in little offices or places that weren’t really ours, to say this is ours, we are welcome here, we have the resources we need to keep our education going and get the help that we need that won’t cost us anything, that’s a really important thing.”
For more information on hours, donating or volunteering for LEAD or Nuestro Lugar, visit www.leadteen.comor call 342-8336.