Fifteen-year-old Michael McNamara has been coming to the Watertown Boys and Girls Club for more than half his life. Since he was 7 years old, he has spent his afternoons playing sports in the gym and hanging out with his friends.
But at a club where members’ ages can range from 7 to 18, it can be difficult to keep teenagers involved. That’s why the club’s executive director, Renée Gaudette, decided to make the creation of a teen center one of the top priorities of the club’s $1.4 million Great Futures Campaign.
The new space is expected to have fast WiFi, gaming, as well as opportunities to learn coding, Web design, and even music producing. There will also be an emphasis on college essay assistance, SAT prep courses, and helping to plan college visits.
For the teens who don’t plan on going to college, the new center would offer workforce development programs that match them with mentors in the community. They’d be able to learn more about a variety of career paths to consider after graduation.
“It would be cool,” McNamara said of the plans. “It would probably be a lot quieter.”
When Gaudette became executive director of the Boys and Girls Club in 2013, she and her team completed a full assessment of the organization and its existing facilities.
“We knew we needed to address some concerns . . . which included the security of our front desk, the accessibility of our building, and the fact that we didn’t have any separate space for teens,” Gaudette said. “We weren’t serving teens as well as we thought we could be.”
The club then started working with an architect to come up with design options that would address their concerns without adding additional space to the building. Once they decided on a design plan, they launched a capital campaign.
The club has raised $750,000 during what Gaudette described as the “quiet phase,” before the campaign was announced to the community. Now organizers are asking members of the Watertown community to help them reach their $1.4 million goal. Construction is slated to begin April 1.
By creating a space solely dedicated to teens, Gaudette hopes that younger kids will be excited for that rite of passage and will continue going to the club after they turn 13.
“Over and over we kept hearing the same thing, which is this is a place for little kids, so we knew the first priority had to be to create a space specifically for teens,” she said.
Gaudette and her team surveyed pre-teen and teenage members to see what kinds of changes they would like to see in the club. They found that the teenagers wanted more access to technology and food — and a lot of them expressed interest in post-graduation planning.
“We’re going to prepare our kids for college and the workforce,” Gaudette said, but “we want them to be coming into the club, which is a safe place where they can connect with caring adults and they can develop their skills, skills like communication, problem-solving . . . 21st century skills.”
Funds from the campaign will also go toward enhancing the club’s accessibility and security. The club already has an accessibility ramp, but the sloping does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We just want to make sure that accessibility is not an obstacle for anybody who wants to come to the club,” Gaudette said.
The club also plans to build an entrance with a 35-foot vestibule so that people have to check in before going in. After going through the vestibule, visitors would go to the front desk and wait before they are buzzed in, in view of security cameras.
“That added layer of security is really something that we need in 2017,” she said. “Our building isn’t currently unsafe or unsecure — it’s just that it could be more secure.”
The club’s program director, Rob O’Neill, said teenage members have been advocating for a teen center since he started working there three years ago.
“A lot of teens become some of our junior staff members here and . . . they’ve given us that feedback that as teens they would like a space off to themselves,” O’Neill said. “They think that we would get a lot more teen involvement out here at this club.”
Gaudette said the teen center is a natural outgrowth of the club’s stated mission, which is “to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.”
“I think the case here in Watertown and in many communities is that the teens are a harder population to reach,” Gaudette said. “But it’s our job to find a way to reach them. . . . We need to do more and offer more to get them in here, into this environment where they can grow and thrive and become those productive, caring, and responsible citizens.’’Sophia Eppolito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.