DECATUR — The new teen center at the Boys & Girls Club of Decatur got rave reviews from the first three teenagers who saw it.
The eyes of Quintara Young, 18, Dillon Phillips, 15, and Cardeje Strong, 16, lit up as they took in the center. They saw pool tables, flat-screen HDTVs, couches and high-rise tables. They stood on a floor painted with the club’s colors: blue, black, gray and white.
Inside the teen center are a loft, gaming and TV area and an open space with a pool table and basketball hoop game. The walls are decorated with murals stating inspirational goals such as “be brave,” “be great,” and “academic success.”
The new facility was financed with $710,000 from former Macon County Sheriff Howard G. Buffett’s private foundation. Buffett said previously that he was providing the money because the club makes a big impact and needs the resources to do important work for the community.
But most of all, the teens are excited for a place to call their own. They are excited for a place to do homework, play games and just relax, Strong said.
“If the Boys & Girls Club is not fun, it’s not going to make the teens come,” Strong said. “But now we have our own center, and we have our stuff in here.”
The teen center is an effort to keep young people out of trouble and off the streets, Executive Director Bruce Jeffery said. Jeffery began discussions about a teen center with community leaders in the summer of 2017 following several incidents of violence that involved children and young people.
The Boys & Girls donation came after Jeffery began discussions with community leaders following the shooting of a 12-year-old boy in a home on May 17, 2017. Eventually that led to Buffett.
“When children are exposed and have to deal with gun violence, that is the real issue in our community,” he said in a Herald & Review story when the donation for the center was announced in September 2017.
Founded in 1972, the club serves more than 100 children and offers various programs for youth ages 7 to 17, with an emphasis on education, career, health, life skills and sports. The new teen center will be geared to those 13 and older. The nonprofit organization has operated out of the 15,000-square-foot North Jasper Street building since 1983. It moved there from a building in the 800 block of East Leafland Avenue.
The trio of teens was so excited by what they saw that they plan to encourage other teens to join them at the club, Strong said.
“All three of us want to recruit other people and friends to get them to come to enjoy the space,” Strong said.
Young stopped attending the club in recent years, but she said she plans to go back now that the teen center is open. She said she is most excited for a place for the teens to hang out away from the little kids at the center.
“We were all in the same room before, and we still got treated like little kids,” Young said.
Phillips said he is looking forward to place to play basketball and other games away from the little kids. The outdoor basketball hoop is next to the teen center.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s a good place to get out of the house and hang out with my friends.”
Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said that the teen center will be an asset to the community.
“On behalf of the city council and people of Decatur, I want to give a personal thank you to Sheriff Howard Buffett because he answered the call,” Moore Wolfe said. “Sheriff Buffett, you’ve changed a lot of lives.”
Buffett did not want to speak Tuesday, but did offer one self-deprecating observation: “I’m so old, I don’t remember what it is like to be a teenager," he said.
Jeffery thanked the community for its support for the project. He said the hundreds of kids who walk through the door of the club every day will feel the support and will feel cared for. He said Buffett’s donation made all the changes possible.
The club also got new floors throughout the entire building, new vans and air conditioning.
Membership for the club is $1, and Jeffrey said he wants to encourage all young people to join. Right now, there are 150 teens registered at the club, Jeffrey said, but he hopes to raise that to more than 300.
One goal of the teen center is to reach kids who are on the verge of making bad decisions such as criminal activity or dropping out of school, and Jeffery said the teen center will keep kids coming back to the club instead of looking for a place to belong somewhere else.
“I do believe we can impact and change some of the kids who are right there on the edge,” he said. “And the kids who are already on track, they can say, this is why I want to stay with the program.”
Jeffrey said he understands that there is a perception in the public about the club being a place for struggling youth or little kids, but he wants to change this and he thinks the teen center will help.
“I just really felt that we needed something different, something new,” he said. “Something where they don’t have to feel like they are being babied when they come to the Boys & Girls Club.”
Johnathan Fluker, program director, said he thinks the center will give teens a safe place to go. Fluker said he has attended recent community meetings looking for solutions to violence in the community and a way to keep kids safe.
“People ask what the solutions are, and I think this is one of the solutions,” he said.
He said he thinks the teen center will benefit not only the club and the young people, but the community as well.
“I am happy for the club. I am happy for the community,” he said. “This will make a difference for years to come.”