Youth center a popular hangout |

Youth center a popular hangout

Janet Urquhart

The youth center opened its new quarters in the Aspen Recreation Center last April. Attendance has easily surpassed both expectations and the number of youths the center was drawing at its old location off Rio Grande Place.

The old center logged some 15,000 visits during its 2001-02 fiscal year. The new digs, located a stone’s throw from the Aspen schools campus, saw that many visits from mid-April until the end of September alone, according to Laura Morris, the center’s executive director.

“I think it has to do with location and the ability to separate age groups,” she said. “We see kids who come right after school and when they leave, they go home.”

The average stay is two hours, but there are those who linger until the center closes at 7 p.m. on weekdays.

The new center offers a mix of spaces for youths to congregate or segregate themselves with their peers.

The ability for older kids to separate themselves from their younger counterparts is key, according to Sue Smedstad, treasurer on the center’s board of directors and one of its founders.

The youth center has been through several incarnations since the first one opened in October 1991. Its former location on Rio Grande had become primarily a haven for middle schoolers.

“As soon as the middle school kids started to hang out there, the high school kids didn’t want to be there,” Smedstad said. “They have come back, and it’s fabulous.”

The center sees use from high schoolers during the day, thanks to its proximity to the school. They can come over during free periods in their class schedule.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a handful of older teens played video games in the lounge set aside for high schoolers only, removed from the shrieks and laughter of frosting-smeared children making gingerbread houses in the multipurpose room.

An adjacent kitchen provided a staging ground for the gingerbread operation. It also hosts popular culinary classes and facilitates a host of activities that weren’t possible with a hot plate at the old center, Morris noted.

A media room, featuring six TVs and long sofas, is open to video game enthusiasts of all ages. The large-screen TV at one end is the focal point for the Friday Movie Club.

A computer lab outfitted with six terminals offers students a place to do homework. The Scholars Club meets four nights a week there, where adult volunteers and staffers help kids with school assignments.

But, as a general rule, adults aren’t in evidence aside from center staffers or those helping conduct programs at the center.

“The no-adult policy is kind of an important thing for us,” Morris said. “We kind of feel strongly that it’s for kids, ages 8 to 18.”

The board of directors is considering dropping the minimum age to 7, however, Smedstad said.

The center’s game room is a gathering spot for all ages, where a high school sophomore and a 9-year-old might shoot a game of pool or square off at air hockey.

“I try to come here a couple of times a week,” said high school junior Colin Sledge, who’s always up for a game of table tennis. “Most of the little kids I play Ping-Pong with, they’re really good.

“Those are some new friends I’ve made.”

Eighth-grader Ashley Koehler said she’s at the center every day after school and often on weekends, as well.

If she wasn’t there, she’d be “home, being bored,” she said.

The new youth center enjoys a handy proximity to the recreational facilities of the ARC, including its swimming pools, ice rink and climbing tower. Center directors expected those elements to be the main draw, but the youths spend most of their time in the center itself, Smedstad noted.

The center is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, compared to the old center, which operated from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

Although the new center charges a buck a day to users, the entry fee is a small piece of the $300,000 operating budget for the new facility ” roughly double the old center’s budget, according to Smedstad.

Most of the funding must be raised through contributions. Though the center is located in the ARC, it is not a taxpayer-supported operation. It must pay its own way as a separate, nonprofit entity, right down to its utility bills, she said.

“People think it’s part of the rec. department. It’s not,” Smedstad said.