Orland Park to Capitol Hill and Back in Two Years for Teen Center
As the community center celebrates its second anniversary, the founders are looking at opening up new locations, influencing federal decisions for after school programs and spreading the “heart” of caring for teens.
A girl visiting The Bridge Teen Center said fellow middle school students once asked her if she had a gun.
“She told them ‘no.’ They then said ‘you should go get one because you should go kill yourself,’” said Priscilla Steinmetz, founder and executive director of the Bridge Teen Center. “We saw the tears in her eyes as she shared this story. Then about a year later we saw her come into the center, and she was starting to blossom. She had a smile on her face and she’s full of confidence, in part through what she learned in our non-verbal communications class.”
The girl learned how to read physical cues that her harassers showed, and learned ways to respond without saying a word. The bullies gave up, when they weren’t getting the reaction they wanted from her, Steinmetz said.
The girl is one of over 1,100 teens who have come to the Orland Park center since it opened in June 2010. The center has offered over 11,000 hours of classes, workshops and entertainment, always for free. Priscilla, along with husband and co-founder Rob Steinmetz, envisioned a community center with free programming and classes to fill teens’ after school time with healthy, real-life enrichment.
Visitors have learned how to file college financial aid, perform proper yoga technique, cook a healthy dinner, play the guitar, apply for a job, get a car loan, write a song, understand chemistry and enjoy a live music show without drugs or alcohol.
“It’s not just a place to be. It’s a place to become,” said Priscilla Steinmetz. “So many students miss opportunities because they are unfortunately so focused on themselves and how other people perceive them. They miss out on things that can really change the course of their lives.”
The Bridge was designed to accommodate any teen, and also provides resources for parents.
“It’s not just for troubled teens, nor is it a crisis center,” said Priscilla Steinmetz. “It’s for every student no matter where you are in life. Whether you are the coolest student in school or whether you’re the student no one knows exists.”
Bridge regulars often find build relationships with other attendees that fill a gap sometimes left within school socializing.
“It’s interesting to observe them and think they’ve known one another other forever, because of how they interact,” Rob Steinmetz said. “Yet in most cases, these are what they refer to as their ‘Bridge friends.’ They met because of coming here. Otherwise they probably would never have met.”
The impact has been strong enough that interest in the Bridge’s methods and practices have gone as far as Capitol Hill.
Taking the Message to Washington
Priscilla Steinmetz was nominated in September – based on efforts at the Bridge – to serve as an ambassador on the Afterschool Alliance, a national advocacy group working to “ensure all youth have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs.”
The experience culminated in a recent trip to Washington D.C., where she and other ambassadors held a workshop with about 350 after school providers, students and people working in education, sharing ideas and practices.
“For us it was continuing the message that after school programs provide a safe place for students,” said Priscilla Steinmetz. “They inspire them to learn, and they help support our working families. That’s the mantra of Afterschool Alliance.”
During the trip, Priscilla Steinmetz also had the chance to personally advocate for after school program funding with staffers for Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago), Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Willowbrook) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
“We don’t even qualify for federal funding and we’re on the hill lobbying for it, because it’s the right thing for kids,” said Rob Steinmetz. “For us personally we were representing students in the suburbs who are grossly underrepresented.”
A trip to Washington fits in one aspect of the Bridge’s long range plan: branching out to new locations.
Stretching the Shoestrings Across Towns
Rob and Priscilla Steinmetz describe the outpouring of local support for the center as “overwhelming in a good way,” such as when the center expanded into its Garage space in May 2011.
But there are also times when funding is tight.
“We do things on a shoestring budget here,” Priscilla Steinmetz said.
The center is hoping to add more full and part time staff in their new fiscal year, starting in July, to get two key efforts going.
One is a long term mentoring program, where teens would be paired with an adult for two years, and a mentor would be on call for as-needed help. Recently a star high school football player hit a “bump in his road,” as Priscilla described it, and needed someone outside of his network of family and friends to speak with.
“That would be someone to look at a teen and say ‘you have greatness inside of you,’” Priscilla Steinmetz said. “If a student needs professional counseling we refer them, but in this case he just needed someone to talk to once a week for about a month.”
Opening new centers in different towns is the other big goal.
“We’ve always said our ultimate goal is for this place to go on without us,” Rob Steinmetz said. “We’re starting to turn that corner.”
New staffers would allow programming to continue at the Orland Park location while efforts are made to open Bridge Teen Centers in new areas.
“We’re beginning the research into other towns to have the next Bridge Teen Center,” Priscilla Steinmetz said. “We had a woman fly in from Cleveland after school shootings, and she wants to do something like the Bridge there.”
As far as the Steinmetzes are concerned, one aspect is essential to open up new centers.
“It’s the heart that matters,” Priscilla Steinmetz said. “You can gain knowledge, Google anything, but it’s finding the people with the same heart for teenagers and that’s what makes the difference.“
The Bridge Teen Center is holding an open house Saturday, May 19
Time: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where: The Bridge Teen Center 15555 S. 71st Ct., Orland Park
What: Gelato bar, student art, live cooking demo, facility tours, live music, summer program previews and more
Looking for more stories about The Bridge Teen Center?
- Further Bridging the Gap: Teen Center Spreads Out
- How Can Parents Help Teenagers With Stress?
- Last Chance This Week to Seek Advice on Bullying
- Grand Opening of The Garage: Viewfinder