It's More Than Just a Place

Over the last thirteen years, our Y Community Teen Center has been positively impacting adolescent mental health by building a model that includes mental health awareness, literacy, and self-advocacy. This is incorporated into all aspects of our environment, culture, and adult practices. For example, we have created a physical environment that is safe, predictable, attractive to teens, and contains visual reminders and resources that pertain to the importance of caring for your mental health. The adult practices include training our staff to know how to recognize typical adolescent developmental tasks as well as signs of concern, how to respond effectively to these concerns, and how to refer youth appropriately when needs are beyond our scope. The model is based on strengths, resilience, social-emotional development, and positive psychology. We believe that all teens can succeed and it is our responsibility to provide the opportunity for them. The Teen Center provides a place for teens to feel a sense of belonging which impacts their mental health.

Here's How We Do That

On any given evening, a teen walking in the door of the Teen Center is greeted warmly by staff and volunteers. Teens new to the center are given a tour, often guided by peer leaders, designed to teach them these key things: you are valued, this is your place, we have high expectations of you and will teach you how to meet those expectations. The tour orients teens to logistics, such as where to find the free food available to them, how to sign up for music lessons, club offerings (art instruction; curriculum-based programs in which girls learn how to increase their activity level and improve their nutrition and self-esteem; a young men’s discussion group about what it means to be a “good man”, among others). The Center’s foundational rule, RESPECT (for self, others and property), is introduced to teens right away, framed to help them understand the “why” and “what” of such a rule: this place is yours, this is how you can keep it safe, fun and available.  As a drop-in center, we are aware that we may have only one opportunity to engage with any given teen, so we train our staff to consider how they can strengthen teens in even brief interactions. We have found that this model increases the likelihood that teens return and benefit even more significantly from their Teen Center participation.

The Impact

“I have social anxiety. Talking to peers outside of Teen Center and Teen Center activities is practically NON-EXISTENT. However, in Teen Center and Teen Center programs, I have REAL HUMAN friends whom I can talk with, laugh with, and I trust. I also trust all of the staff. They’re nice, they ask me about my day, and they CARE about me. I trust the staff to keep this environment safe for me. I’ve spent three summers being healthy, feeling better about myself, and making friends. At the Teen Center, people ACCEPT me, quirks and all. They respect me and my boundaries. I can have actual conversations without feeling anxious. It’s safe, fun, and people care about you. I love it. When you walk in the door, people yell out your name and ask you how you’re doing. (At school, most people don’t even know my name.) When you leave, they yell ‘BYE!’ and wave. On a bad day, that means more to me than I can express.”
Teen Center Participant