A safe space to learn and play
By Abigail Thorpe
Over 16 years ago, Marilyn Fargo started an after-school drop-in center where teens could do crafts and socialize. Two to four kids would stop in for a bit in the beginning. Today, the Sandpoint Teen Center serves 35 to 40 teens a day, providing a safe space for them to gather, learn and build friendships.
But the path to get here has not been without hurdles. The center moved to various locations over the years, looking for a home they could gather and offer cooking and other educational opportunities. They had a part-time staff and board of directors including Jim Payne, Joan Avery and other community members. It was difficult to keep staff on however, and in 2010 Avery volunteered to serve as the director until someone was willing to take on the part-time position for little pay.
In 2018 the center was in need of a home, and the new owners at Huckleberry Lanes offered up their space. “Being new, they opened their arms to us and let us use the arcade room for snacks and games,” says Avery. “The best part was that quite a lot of teens that had never before bowled began bowling weekly and enjoying keeping scores and watching their progress.”
The teen center still needed a space to continue their culinary program, however, and eventually they found their current home at the Church of God, where John and Kathy Pomeroy and the board offered them use of the kitchen, ping pong table and outdoor basketball court.
Teens are welcome to stop in and grab food and participate in activities or games, but they are encouraged to put their phones down and interact. They can use their cell phone to call a parent and let them know where they are, but besides that the center doesn’t allow video games or constant texting or phone use. “Our focus and goal is to get teens back in the habit of interacting face to face, playing games, learning new skills and becoming an active member of our community,” says Avery.
Many make use of the opportunity to bowl for free, a perk of the flat rate the center pays the bowling alley monthly. “They are here by their own choice and can leave when they want,” says Avery. “It is a great opportunity to be a sounding board for them with no judgement. Some come in to eat, play games or for advice. Others just like to come in and play games or socialize to fill the time until they have to go to practice or their parents come to pick them up. Mostly the teens come for the food and to connect with friends after school before going to an empty house.”
In addition to bowling, snacks, games and homework help, the center has speakers and individuals visit to share skill sets or mentor. Finance, music, crafts and volunteer work have all been topics of past classes.
The center also began a culinary program where teens would come in to help cook a meal for the entire group. Once they complete six meal preparations and cleanup and pass a food handling quiz, each teen receives $25 cash and a certificate they can take to local restaurants to apply for work. “Justin Dick at Trinity has hired a couple of our graduates over the years,” notes Avery. “Another has worked in the kitchen at Schweitzer.”
Teens are also encouraged to give back through community outreach programs like raking leaves, visiting the elderly at Valley Vista, helping at the Senior Center, and assisting with Souptember and other community fundraisers. “We are always looking for more opportunities to interact and be a vital part of our community,” says Avery, and she welcomes any special projects the community needs help with.
Over the years, the center has been a refuge for teens looking for a safe place to learn, meet new people and share a meal. “Because the teen center is open to all teens, we will often have a lone student come in and meet someone from another school and they find things in common. So even if they are being bullied at their school they have an opportunity to meet new friends outside of the school environment,” shares Avery.
A while back the center had an autistic teen come in who was fearful and uncomfortable in the group setting. Over time, as the center continued to welcome and engage her, she grew confident and became a core part of the team, helping other teens learn in the kitchen. “She grew and blossomed right before our eyes,” says Avery. “Today she is a graduate of SHS and quite confident and outgoing. She is comfortable sharing her Autism and how it affects people differently.”
The center has been a refuge and starting point for many in the community. “In fact, we have several teens now in their 20s that still drop in once in a while to touch base or show us new baby pictures and say they really enjoyed their time at the teen center,” shares Avery.
Today the center employees five staff and relies on donations, grants and volunteer hours to operate. To get more information or to volunteer time or to become a board member, visit SandpointTeenCenter.com or call Joan Avery at 208.946.1087.