Further Bridging the Gap: Teen Center Spreads Out
Less than a year after opening its doors, the Bridge Teen Center in Orland Park is expanding to offer more to teens and their families.
Rob and Priscilla Steinmetz were exhausted but smiling.
The couple leaned on a plank of wood and looked around at what would soon be a completed addition to the Bridge Teen Center, the non-profit they opened last summer. Volunteer builders built the new space, called the Garage, in February, March and April with all donated materials.
On a Saturday evening in late February, after a long day filled with a flurry of cutting, sanding, wiring, planning and constructing in the space right next door to the original teen center, the Steinmetzes were feeling equally tired and grateful.
“This was a really good day,” said Rob Steinmetz, the Bridge’s co-founder and marketing director. “You could take it for granted just looking at a completed space, but there’s so much behind the scene. And it’s only because amazing people came in and know what they are doing.”
Thanks to a few other days like the one in February, this Saturday, May 14, the Garage opens. The 2,400-square-foot space will be “dedicated to live music, music lessons, a recording studio and weekly fitness classes, all for teens, all for free,” according to the center’s website. Much like the original center that opened in June 2010, the Garage is meant to give teens a wider array of things to do once school is done for the day.
“When people think teen center, they immediately think troubled teens, and that’s not really it here,” Priscilla Steinmetz said. “We’re trying to be proactive. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s part of learning and getting older. But if someone is walking alongside to encourage you and give direction, it doesn’t turn out as bad as it could.”
No One Has Said ‘This is a Stupid Idea’
In less than a year, the Bridge Teen Center has produced an array of unique programs and practical classes to fill in gaps often left unfilled by formal education. Workshops on how best to apply for jobs and colleges, or tackling car payment contracts, coping with eating disorders and finding help for drug use have been spread throughout the center’s varied calendar. Yoga, martial arts, musical instruments and cooking have been subjects of hands-on classes. Programs are also held for parents, with medical and psychological professionals, to help them learn better ways to approach confronting–or comforting–their children in times of concern.
“Teens are dealing with technology and are amazing with it, but they’re missing personal relationships,” Priscilla Steinmetz said. “We don’t take enough time in our suburban lives for those teachable moments anymore. I think that’s missing in our fabric.”
Sustained through a diversified blend of donations, grant money and volunteer effort–which included building the two spaces–the Bridge offers all programs for free. The center has garnered a warm reception from area teens and their families, and has attracted businesses and churches willing to pitch in, as well as individuals with useful skills.
“It’s been great to see the community get behind us,” said Amy McGrew, the center’s program director. “For the most part, our programs have consisted of people from the community who say, ‘I have in a skill in this or that, how can I help?’ We get to build our programming based on what they can do.”
The list of businesses, schools, organizations and religious institutions jumping in continues to grow. In late April, staff from Hersey came to the Bridge to learn how to apply and interview for a job. Area stores and restaurants such as Meijer and Old Town Pizza Co. have held cooking demos. Best Buy’s Geek Squad stopped by in March to teach computer maintenance.
A mix of adults, teens still in high school and young people freshly out of their teen years play different roles for the center. Along with a board of directors, a junior board of about 12 members who are 21 and old offer guidance and ideas. Mike Impallaria, 20, of Oak Forest, said he saw attendees open up more and more to the center’s programming during the first couple of months.
“I’m only a year out of high school, but I wish I could’ve had this type of thing growing up,” Impallaria said. “It’s a safe place that’s also fun.”
The idea for the center started about five years ago with surveys questioning about 500 students about what would attract them to—and repel them from–such a place. Priscilla Steinmetz, a teen counselor by trade who worked in high schools, sent out an online questionnaire and held in-person focus groups to determine what the center would have to offer in programming, access and even decor to bring teens and their families in the door, and to convince them to keep coming back.
“In there, we also asked, ‘What would keep you away?’” Priscilla Steinmetz said. “One thing they said would keep them away was cost to get in. We knew it had to be free. Another was if it was too crowded. Often coffee shops are places teens can go, but they are usually so small there hardly is anywhere to sit.”
The original center space has the look of a coffee shop where the customers actually clean up after themselves. In a tucked-away strip off Harlem Avenue north of 159th Street in Orland Park, the center’s vaulted industrial ceilings with fans contrast with the bright floors and walls and earth-toned sofas in the space’s center. Pictures of different bridges adorn the back wall and a few vintage sit-down, table-style arcade games are along another wall. A cooking station sits in the back corner, used for different culinary demos and food workshops. Just past the front door is an Internet-equipped laptop bar that people visiting the center seem to naturally gravitate toward.
The original space is about 2,500 square feet, with a capacity for 49 people (capacity will be over 175 people with the Garage space addition). There’s open space for different uses, from roundtable discussions to exercise classes.
“Getting bullied, or feeling depressed, that happens in the suburbs too,” Priscilla Steinmetz said. “Young people need this now. We need to come together. They need relationships with people.”
Then Yin, Now Yang
The Garage in appearance is the cool uncle with a great record collection compared to the meticulous-yet-hip high school teacher that is the original space. In keeping with the theme, one-quarter of a Volkswagen Bug, donated by an Oak Forest auto shop, was embedded into the east wall behind a raised area. Benches were built to double as storage containers, while other decorations are solely for atmosphere, such as vintage gas pumps and a 5-foot-tall guitar replica, built by Priscilla’s father.
Described by Priscilla as a “game-changer” for what the center can provide, the Garage sparked an even greater response from people, businesses and organization willing to donate money, resources and effort. A $15,000 grant came from Home Depot for building supplies, American Import Tile in Tinley Park donated floor tiles, a family offered their pool table and dozens of contractors put in their trade skills to build the Garage.
The volunteers all signed names on the northwest corner wall. Some volunteers didn’t bother saying where they were from. They just came and did the needed work, Rob Steinmetz said.
“A lot of churches asked people to come out,” he said. “On that list are at least eight different churches, all different denominations. A lot of people from Parkview Church helped. But a lot of people on that list have no affiliation at all. They just wanted to help.”
The Bridge Teen Center will debut the Garage at a grand opening/open house on Saturday, May 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 15555 S. 71st Ct. in Orland Park (behind Dunkin’ Donuts on Harlem).