Keeping Teens Busy

Keeping Teens Busy

Recent state and federal grants for Loudoun Youth Inc. have begun to be put to use.

Instead of partying or hanging around a McDonald's parking lot Friday night, a group of Loudoun teens played games like no-hands volleyball at the Dulles Sportsplex. The After Dark program, hosted by the county’s recently chartered Boys and Girls Clubs, started Nov. 2 and offers activities for county high-school students at the Sportsplex every Friday, from 9 p.m. until 1 in the morning.

The program is the first product of more than $200,000 in grant money that Loudoun Youth Inc. recently received from the federal government and the state of Virginia. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) worked to get $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice for the organization, and Del. Dave Poisson (D-32) lobbied the state for another $25,000, to be granted over the next two years.

The goal of the After Dark program is to give teens something to do at night, said Charlene Johnson, the Boys and Girls Clubs’ chief professional officer. "In Loudoun, you need to have a car," said Johnson, noting that many students who don’t have cars or driver’s licenses end up hanging out on street corners, increasing their chances of getting into trouble. The clubs, and all other beneficiaries of Loudoun Youth Inc., aim to prevent youths from joining gangs or involving themselves in other risky behaviors such as drinking and drug use.

Johnson said the Boys and Girls Clubs, which already offer after-school activities at some local middle schools, would soon be offering other occasional activities, such as lock-ins at local high schools and eventually plan to create another weekly event. With sports already covered at After Dark, she said, "We’re looking at doing something directed toward females, like dance or something."

SHE SAID that one requirement for participation in After Dark is contributing to a community service project in the spring.

Carol Kost, president of Loudoun Youth Inc., said that, although there are some signs of gang activity in the county, her organization is part of an effort aimed primarily at prevention. "We don’t see an existing problem. We see the potential for a problem," she said. The nonprofit Loudoun Youth Inc. is a fund-raising arm of the Loudoun Youth Initiative, which helps to sponsor events such as Youth Fest and Step Up Loudoun, as well as other activities. Kost said that the county itself cannot solicit donations.

She said the Loudoun Youth Initiative is still in its early stages and ultimately hopes to offer a teen activity almost every day of the week. The programs would be shaped in part by the youths who participate.

"We want this to be something they get engaged with enough that they’re creating it, too," said Kost. For example, she said, "we adults never would have thought of hands-free volleyball. But we gave them the space to do it."

Poisson said that Loudoun lacks the "mature infrastructure" that would leave the occasional building open to be converted into a teen center. Instead, he said he wanted to help programs use existing spaces and find resources from a variety of existing organizations. The Loudoun Youth Initiative, he said, is drawing on county social service departments and education programs, the Sheriff’s Office, faith-based organizations and others, as well as the business community.

He said he had worked to obtain the state grant throughout much of his first term because he knew the county was intent on providing more youth services.

LEADING THE COUNTY in starting and expanding the Loudoun Youth Initiative has been Supervisor Steve Snow (R-Dulles). "All of the community organizations are like the vertical strands in a net," said Snow. "You don’t have a safety net with vertical strands only. So this is to create the horizontal strands," he said of the initiative that brings disparate parts of the community into cooperation.

He said organizers have consulted local youth since before the program started in order to determine what the problems in the community were and how to deal with them. According to George Mason University, they have not been misled, said Snow. Loudoun Youth Initiative formed a partnership with the university, which created a system by which to measure the program’s effectiveness, he said, noting that the first results, released about a year ago, were positive. "We asked GMU what the best practices were," he said. "They went out and did research and came back and said, ‘You are it.’" He said the program also draws on the university’s resources.

Snow said he wanted the Loudoun Youth Initiative to be his legacy. "I’m hoping the new supervisors will come in and see the whole significance of this," he said. "This is an area you don’t want to cut and you don’t want to de-emphasize."