A new youth drop-in center at Ark-a’ik gives teens a place to hang out, get STD info and talk to mentors about problems at home
Not all that long ago, I was walking north on Virginia Street amid a slew of dazed tourists and down-and-out folk who seemed to have had their last good meal the day before yesterday. Strolling past the Silver Legacy, I caught the eye of a girl surely not a day over 14 with a wary look in her eyes. Another girl about her age, maybe even younger, stood beside her. When the first girl spied me, she shook the look of self-defense off her face and approached me to ask for some change.
The girls weren’t meagerly dressed or unkempt. They didn’t look like miscreants. They looked like they misplaced Mom inside the video arcade.
“We’re three dollars short of getting a hotel room,” Girl No. 1 explained. Girl No. 2, who didn’t seem interested in talking, averted my gaze.
“Good God,” I thought. I rummaged in my wallet for money and gave the girls what little I had on me. (Strangely enough, a dude on the street a few yards back had just asked me for change, but I’d walked on by, feeling guilty.)
“Are you guys OK?” I asked, looking from Girl No. 1 to Girl No. 2 and back again. “Do you need …” but I wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence.
“We’re fine,” Girl No. 1 quickly assured me.
“Well, be careful, OK?” I said, feeling at once offensively motherly and utterly helpless.
Since I don’t confront probable runaways on the street every day, an actual encounter with two needy young teens baffled me. Of course, this is nothing compared to the bafflement two 14-year-olds fresh off a Greyhound bus with no friends, no resources and no lodging must feel.
Denise Yoxsimer, development director for local nonprofit organization Children’s Cabinet, says that staff members of RHYME (Runaway and Homeless Youth Mentoring and Equipping), a Children’s Cabinet program, used to hang out downtown, talking to stray teens and getting the word out about the organization’s resources.
But scouting for runaways at the bus station is a clunky, time-consuming way to reach teens in need. The Children’s Cabinet, located way out in industrial Sparks, wanted a centralized location where kids could hang out, obtain information about temporary lodging and meals and talk to mentors.
“We do a lot of street outreach in skate parks, Sand Harbor, Citi Center,” Yoxsimer says. “We thought it would be great to, instead of walking around looking for kids, provide a location where they can come to us.”
She says that after a centralized location is established, teens will be able to refer one another to the center.
“Kids are a lot better at spreading the word than we are,” she says.
Enter Planned Parenthood, whose youth education coordinators had a similar goal in mind: to set up a center for youth to hang out and discuss problems related to sexuality, STDs and reproductive health with mentors who can relate.
“One of our missions is to reach youth about the spread of STDs and AIDS,” says Robin Krueger, community educator for Planned Parenthood. “We wanted the youth to have a safe and comfortable place that’s more fun, not an official setting.”
Enter punk rockers, vinyl records and a coffee bar. Here at 555 E. Fourth Street, the music is loud, and the cushy old couches offer prime lounging space. Stodgy grown-ups? Authority figures? Nowhere in sight. But wait …
“We attract them,” Krueger says, “because we have the condoms.”
After RHYME and Planned Parenthood merged their agendas into a collective vision, Jacques Pelham, a community health outreach worker at Planned Parenthood, approached Ark-a’ik owner Steve Peto with the idea of a drop-in center for youth at his Fourth Street coffeehouse/record store/music venue. Peto, who already provides youngsters with a place to hang, hear music, watch movies and buy coffee, quickly warmed up to the idea of offering teens a youth support center as well.
“I opened [Ark-a’ik] particularly with people under 21 in mind,” he says. “I thought there was no place for them to go to hear music. I just melded [Ark-a’ik and the youth center] together. It was like puzzle pieces interlocking.”
I ask Peto if teens will feel self-conscious with Planned Parenthood and RHYME mentors hanging around—perhaps feel as though their turf has been invaded.
“I don’t think so, just because it’s so informal,” he says. “It’s not like a sterile office. You wouldn’t even know these guys are with an organization. As far as they know, it’s just a guy walking around with a sack of condoms.”
Peto’s right: The Planned Parenthood and Children’s Cabinet workers I talked with are laid-back, non-threatening folk. And they’re young—Christina Hausladen, a case manager for Children’s Cabinet, looks like she’s barely out of college, with sun-bleached hair, trendy clothes and a pierced lip. Most of the other mentors don’t look much older.
“I feel surprisingly comfortable talking to these guys,” Hausladen says of the teens.
“We never push,” adds Krueger. “Usually they think it’s pretty cool.”
There’s a lot more to the drop-in center than condom giveaways. In addition to providing resources for runaway teens and talking with kids about their problems, drop-in center workers will coordinate games and other activities that educate teens about reproductive health and STDs.
And on July 26, the drop-in center’s kickoff date, kids can stop by the center’s information booth and visit with mentors, enter a raffle and participate in a contest to name the center. They can also hear music: Go National with Kevin Seconds of 7 Seconds fame, The Atomiks, The Vitriolics, the Mighty Surf Lords (see Musicbeat, page 27) and Noggintoboggan will play.
From there on out, mentors hope that teens will take the reins and make the center work for them, whatever that might mean.
“This is the teens’ group," Krueger says. "They can create whatever they want. We just want them to get as many resources as possible."