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Making positive space
Monroe Youth Center Board Vice President Rick Gleason, Treasurer Mary Lou Campbell, President Kathleen Rinear, center right, and Director Andrea Schmitz, right, celebrate signing the location lease with new landlord Marv Rufi, center, in front of 1504 11th St., Monroe, set to open as Monroe Youth Center in September. (Photo supplied)
MONROE - Less than a year after planning began, community members have leased a building to host a hangout center for middle school students in downtown Monroe.

It began in June, when representatives from local organizations and churches met for the first time to talk about providing students with activities outside of school. It was formed by Monroe United Methodist Pastor Randy Booth. By the fourth meeting over lunch in late October at Monroe UMC, termed a brainstorming session, discussion revolved around creating a youth center.

Kathleen Rinear, associate pastor of St. John's United Church of Christ in Monroe, felt this idea was important enough to merit action.

"About a third of the kids walk home from school and a lot of them walk through downtown," Rinear said. "They tend to congregate; they want to hang out with their friends. So, we said what we need is a place for those kids."

When she joined the Green County Leaders in September, Monroe Youth Center became the group's project to realize. Now president of the MYC Board of Directors, Rinear said planning was "methodical" but effective and looks forward to opening the downtown location in September.

"The primary interest was having a safe and constructive environment for kids to hang out in the afternoon, a healthy snack and time to just be with their friends, but we are also wanting this to be a place for positive reinforcement of values that are contributing to society and the community," Rinear said.

MYC Board Treasurer Mary Lou Campbell had similar thoughts about a space for pre-teens, but until an acquaintance mentioned the meeting scheduled for January, she thought she was alone. Even though Campbell said she was unsure of the execution, she had been organizing a plan to host programs for students of that age after watching her daughter, now a freshman, navigate through middle school.

"As I listened to their discussions and as I got to know her friends, it really started to bother me that there are children in this community who need a little bit more," Campbell said. "This is something that's been on my mind for the last three, four years. I was very, very happy to find out something was already in the works. I wanted to help."

The 1,800-square-foot building on the south side of the 1500 block of 11th Street has clear sight lines, making supervision easy, Rinear said. The area will have a small kitchenette for snacks, a quiet space for homework and possibly a basketball hoop. Activities will range from board games and crafts to activities outside of the center. There are even high school students already interested in serving as peers.

"The high school kids are enthusiastic about participating as helpers," Campbell said.

The board plans to begin building preparations in June, Rinear said, and set up the space over the summer months to open in September. However, the group still has to raise funds in order to feel secure in its first year of operation.

MYC is under the umbrella of the Green County Development Corporation. GCDC Executive Director Cara Carper said that makes the facility eligible to be a nonprofit entity. Carper echoed Campbell and Rinear on public sentiment toward the project.

"They're getting a ton of support," Carper said. "It's really good all around."

While affirmation has been nice for the organizers, Campbell noted the best way for people or entities to show support for MYC would be to donate time, money or even items.

The group requires a refrigerator and some cabinetry for the facility kitchenette.

"Every middle school kid is starving when they're done with school," Campbell said. "A lot of them may not be going to homes that have a lot in the cupboard, so we want to make sure they do have the opportunity to have something to eat."

Rinear said the group has a goal of $50,000. So far, they have secured a $3,000 donation. She and Campbell said fundraising is important because MYC will provide a space for students whose families don't necessarily have the means to pay for after-school programs.

The youth center, which will officially be named by the students once it opens, guarantees a supervised space for children with an open but structured daily program. It will incorporate methods of Wisconsin Boys and Girls Clubs, but on a smaller scale, Campbell noted.

"A lot of the need we identified is a lot of these kids are going home to empty houses," she said. "And what are they doing at their empty houses? They're not doing anything necessarily creative. We want them to have a good, positive environment to hang around."