Hanging out: These eighth-graders from Wellwood Middle School relax at The Spot. They are (on beanbag chairs, from left) Juliana Leach, Jacy Schoemaker and Rebecca Arthur, and (on computers) Avery McCarthy and Sammy Balstra. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
“Friday and Saturday nights, the mall is swarming with teens,” said Lori Innella-Venne, Spot director. “They are already there so why not offer something structured?” Unlike Carousel Center, Shoppingtown Mall has no weekend curfews targeting teens. Marci Erlebacher, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Syracuse, noticed something else: Teens have very few places to go for wholesome entertainment.
“It was tough to see young kids aging out of our after-school programs,” Erlebacher said. So she and Innella-Venne decided to focus on creating a program for seventh to 12th graders. The two gathered a small team of 15 students to act as The Spot’s teen council. These teens, who had aged out of the JCC’s programs, choose and organize The Spot’s programming. With guidance from Innella-Venne and Erlebacher, the teens want to maintain a balance of volunteer, entertainment, educational and social activities.
“It’s filling a niche in our community,” said Jamesville-DeWitt High School student and teen council member, Rebecca Bergman. Many students have nothing else to do after school, she explained. “Most days, I go home and play on the computer for three hours until I realize I have homework,” said Ali Emmel, a 14-year-old J-D student. When asked what they do on the computer, the two girls chimed one single word: “Facebook.”
If they aren’t on their computers, teens want to be out, and usually in large groups. Since most parents have a capacity limit on the family room, the most convenient place to hang is the mall. “I was at the mall last weekend to see a movie and teens were everywhere,” said Amy Thrasher, assistant director for The Spot. “When kids don’t want to be at home with their parents, there is nowhere else for them to go.”
As a nonprofit group, the Spot has to expand programming slowly since money has impeded progress, said Innella-Venne. While other nonprofit organizations are hurting, teen centers like the Spot and Cicero’s CanTeen are somehow remaining viable through parents’ donations. Indeed, the Spot would not have been a reality if it had not been for the gracious donation of a family that remains anonymous, Innella-Venne said.
They are also working to gain a sizable teen following. Currently, they are offering one or two events each week and hope to be operating daily by the fall, said Bergman. Feb. 5 marked The Spot’s first coffeehouse, and in coming weeks the center will host 1980s movie nights and Syracuse University basketball game viewings.
So what can your teen expect? For the studious, computer stations and homework-help tables are located in quiet areas. For those with a competitive edge, pool and ping-pong tables are located next to a plethora of multiplayer games like Scrabble, Risk and Apples to Apples. Also, influenced by the popular JCC event, the Battle of the Bands, the back of The Spot boasts a large stage. The eighth annual event on Dec. 9 brought in a crowd of more than 300 to the JCC.
It’s not all fun and games, though. Erlebacher and Innella-Venne also hope to prepare teens for the real world beyond what their high school curriculum offers. The Prevention Network and Real Life Real Talk will provide education regarding safe sex and drug use for students who want it. The Spot might also prevent fewer phone calls home when these teens reach college by teaching tips to balancing a checkbook and handling credit cards.
As Innella-Venne gazed around the room, she watched as some teens were playing games while others were walking their parents over to The Spot’s Snack Shack for homemade peach smoothies. “I wish there was something like this when I was in high school,” she said.