Nonprofit Aspen Youth Center celebrated its 25th anniversary last week. Aspen Public Radio’s Barbara Platts spent some time at the center and talked with the executive director and a longtime board member to hear about the organization’s history and where it is today.
The scene at the youth center is exuberant. It’s midday on a Friday, but kids have the day off from school. Some are playing air hockey and pool. Others hit a ping pong ball back and forth. A few are playing video games, and several are just coming in from outdoor agility lessons. It’s clear there’s no shortage of activities here.
The youth center admits kids from 3rd to 12th grade, so there’s quite an eclectic crowd. But they all seem to have one thing in common: They love dodgeball. The sport is one of many activities available to youth at the center, which allows kids to drop in for free after school, on weekends and on holidays.
To learn more about the organization and its history, I caught up some of the women involved in the organization, as well as Aspen Times Weekly editor Jeanne McGovern. She joined the conversation as part of a collaboration between Aspen Public Radio and the newspaper.
Barbara: Sue, you’ve been with the youth center for a long time, right?
Sue: I have. We started in 1987, a group of adults and students working together to determine if there was a need for a youth center in Aspen, and I’ve been with the youth center as a board member ever since.
Barbara: How did you guys come up with this idea? How did you know it was necessary to start a youth center?
Sue: It actually all came from students. There used to be a conference held with grades five through 12. Every year they come up with their top priorities, typically it was something like, ‘improve school spirit.’ But in the fall of 1987, they came up with the idea that the most important need they had was a teen center, something that was all their own. We began the process. We then, for the next four years, worked to put together the plans and raise the money. On October 31, 1991 we opened our doors.
Barbara: Jeanne, let’s bring you in on this. Jeanne is the editor of the Aspen Times Weekly. We are doing our first collaboration with the radio and the weekly. Jeanne, you’ve been talking to a lot of people in your interviews. What’s your reporting been like about the youth center?
Jeanne: I think it’s a really interesting story of a community organization that was, as Sue said, built upon a need. But the need was driven by the users, as opposed to these visionaries who come up with what they think everybody wants. I really love the idea that the kids drove the idea. And from what I’ve learned, both firsthand, because my children have been Aspen Youth Center kids, and in speaking to other people, it’s still driven to a large degree by those kids’ needs and their wants. I think it’s an impressive organization that takes the time to look beyond its board and its director to the people it actually serves in creating a working model for success.
Barbara: What were some of your kids’ experiences there?
Jeanne: In those early years, when they’re too old to go to camp or be babysat, but really too young to be on their own, I found the youth center to be a great place for them to just hang out after school in between things. It was great for us to know that they were somewhere that was safe. There was some supervision, but they weren’t being overly managed. I liked that idea of the building block of freedom. And they did all sorts of cool things. My daughter did cooking classes, arts and crafts. She really just liked to be at the center. My son loves all the sports. Dodgeball is the highlight of everyone’s life.
Barbara: Can you guys speak to that? The independence they get at the youth center. Can you explain about that model and why you guys choose to do that?
Michaela: So we are a drop-in facility, meaning that the kids can check in and check out as they want to. And we do tell the parents that if they don’t want them to check out, just tell them they can’t. But it’s a really good building block, like Jeanne said, for independence. It helps them learn that there are boundaries, and there’s someone there watching them. If they need help they know who to come to. They can also explore a bit on their own, and they have to sign up for their own activities and then show up for them. We have a schedule everyday but they have to remember to do it. It helps them learn.
Barbara: Can you speak a bit to how the programming started and how it’s evolved over time?
Sue: I tip my hat off to the staff since we moved to the ARC (Aspen Recreation Center) because they really worked very hard, and have been incredibly creative. Believe it or not, even dodgeball has some incredible thought behind what lessons kids are going to learn, whether it’s in teamwork or in respect. Kids are learning real lessons in civility.
Barbara: What are you guys hoping the future holds for Aspen Youth Center?
Michaela: I would love to see us continue to expand. We have right around 1,700 youth members right now, which is incredible. The goal is to increase our numbers, and to remain free.
Sue: I would echo that, from a board perspective, and that is really to be sustainable to a point where we could continue to improve our facilities.