By Danielle Church
Killeen Daily Herald
HARKER HEIGHTS - Since opening its doors three months ago, the Harker Heights Armed Services YMCA Teen Center has sought to expand its enrollment.
"We've had so many teens that had no idea we were here for them," Director Gary Johnson said. "We want to be an extension of their living room or their bedroom."
While the ASYMCA is a nonprofit organization that works with the Defense Department, Johnson stands strong behind the center's vision in being there for a wide range of children, not just those whose parents are actively serving in the military.
"The focus of the Y is to be community-based, not neighborhood," Johnson said. "Because we're new, the kids from across (U.S. Highway) 190 don't know about us yet."
While many options are available to middle and high school children throughout the summer, the ASYMCA Teen Center gives them the opportunity to feel at home and belong to something they can believe in. Because it is not a day care facility, the teens are free to walk in or be dropped off as they please, giving them a sense of maturity and independence.
Amenities such as multiple televisions throughout the center, accompanied by gaming systems such as the Xbox 360 with Kinect, Nintendo Wii, and a computer area fully equipped with Wi-Fi, make it easy for the teens to feel at home. An exercise area and snack bar also are available.
The staff take pride in their own participation with the members. It's not unusual to see Johnson with an Xbox controller in hand, or front desk clerk Jackie Lopez out from behind her desk indulging in conversation or games with the teens.
"We want to keep them in here, not out there (the streets)," Lopez said. "We're not just here sitting at the front."
One recreation many of the members are looking forward to in upcoming weeks is the theater room. Volunteers such as 15-year-old Ellison High School student Nathan Diederich and his father, Kurt, will donate their time and craftsmanship to make the theater possible.
"I think it's a great place. I can't wait for the theater," said Braden Lane, 12, an Eastern Hills Middle School student.
The Teen Center is not just a place to do homework after school or play video games; it will offer many programs to get teens involved in different aspects of life.
A program geared toward young girls will seek to guide them on how to be professional and carry themselves in a way that attracts positive attention. Special hours also will be available for younger children to enjoy the facility, as well as special hours for adults to take advantage of the Wi-Fi or exercise equipment.
Youth and Government will kick off in September and run through February of next year.
"It engages kids in the government," Program Director John Marshall said.
The program allows middle and high school students to take part in subject areas such as judicial, legislative, executive, press and media corps, and youth commission, along with others.
Outward Bound gets kids active in the "real outdoors," not just walking to and from their school bus.
"It's an opportunity for kids that are not plugged in elsewhere. We want to give these kids the same opportunities," Johnson said.
Field trips such as kayaking, hiking and skiing are planned as part of the program.
Johnson believes the center eventually will bring in teens from other local cities. He said a teen youth council is in the works that will allow teens to voice their opinions on what they'd like to see done at the center.
A mentoring program also is being considered, where older teens will be encouraged to come hang out with the younger set.
Open house June 11
An open house is scheduled for June 11. Radio station KWTX 97.5 is set to participate, and free movie tickets and free hot dogs will be given away. A pool tournament also is planned.
The center is open from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from noon to 7 p.m. Saturday. Summer hours will be from noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Those interested in registering may do so at the center, 100 E. Beeline Ave. Membership for the Teen Center is $10 per month or $100 a year. Non-members can attend for $1 a day.
For more information on the Harker Heights Armed Services YMCA Teen Center, as well as other ASYMCA facilities and programs, go to www.asymca.net or call (254) 634-5445.