Calling the space below the office at 145 N. Gill St. a basement barely scratches the surface.
It’s a man-cave-worthy enclave with two 42-inch flat screen TVs — wall-mounted and perfect for movies, football and games — to complement popcorn and cotton candy machines.
It’s also an art studio, where graffiti is welcome, and a future recording studio with one tiny booth for singers and another for engineers.
On some nights, it’s a retreat, an escape from life for reflecting, studying and confiding. On others, it’s a jumping nightclub, a DJ dishing out hip-hop in a corner across from a low, illuminated stage.
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Put them all together and you’ve got the Youth of Unity youth center, an extension of the Unity Church of Jesus Christ down the street and the brainchild of Vaughn Wilson.
Wilson, the church’s youth leader, built the center last summer to transform an ordinary, subterranean recreation room into a haven for his growing “crew,” as he calls the church youth and their friends who have made it a second home.
“The need here is I see that young people feel like they don’t have a place for themselves,” Wilson said.
“Yes, we have a lot in this community — the YMCA and great things going on — but I still feel we need a place where youth can say, ‘That’s my identity, where I can be me, freely express myself and have a voice.’ And that’s what made me say, ‘OK, let me try to develop something that will give them a space.’ ”
When they arrive, mostly on Wednesday, Thursday and weekend evenings, there are several choices for hanging out.
The Chill Room, its walls decorated in Jackson Pollock-style paint splatters and scrawled Bible verses and messages, offers a peaceful nook for homework or quiet spot for talks with Wilson in confidence.
In contrast, the Swag Room produces noisy, escapist fun. An overstuffed black sofa provides the perfect perch for trumping opponents on virtual basketball courts.
Then comes the main room, the Creative Space. Wilson holds weekly motivational talks here, but its main purpose is self-expression: hip-hop dancing, acting, singing, improv comedy, whatever moves someone. If that means artwork, the Dream Wall beckons, one side available for anyone with a positive design in mind.
At present, a stylized, graffiti-esque image of Jesus with the words “Rep the King” adorns the orange wall. But, as per house rules, it could be painted over at any point if someone has an approved idea.
“This place, you can just be yourself,” said 12-year-old Chris Hayes. “You don’t have to worry about people laughing at you, cracking at you or making fun of you for how you feel.”
‘There’s been a calling’
How did a 32-year-old white Louisiana man get to State College to be a mentor, confidant and friend to youth from a predominantly black church?
It took a few twists and turns.
Born in Arizona, Wilson lived in different states before settling in Louisana. He also had a complicated childhood, growing up in a single-parent household with his father and partially in foster homes.
Moving and the dislocation it brought, having to leave friends and make new ones, instilled a passion in him to help young people, setting him on a path.
“I feel like there’s been a calling all my life to reach out to young people of all colors, not just a certain group, because we’re all in this together,” he said.
“I look at it that way. That’s what’s impacted me: How do I reach these young people coming from all walks of life, who have these different perspectives, different experiences, and how do we reach them to show that they have a purpose? That’s what our main goal is.”
After another move, he graduated from Bellefonte Area High School in 2000 and became the first in his family to go to college. He tried Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, but it didn’t work out.
“That first year in college, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “My grades were down, not because I wasn’t into things, but I wasn’t prepared to study.”
He returned to Louisiana, where a brother lived, and went through a soul-searching period. What did God want him to do? What was his purpose?
During his stay, he came to a decision from community volunteering and working with youth. He saw some coping with broken homes, as he did, or struggling to find somewhere to fit in.
He saw a plan.
“I felt like I needed to start something,” he said.
‘A lot of need for youth’
Moving back to Bellefonte to be close to his father, Wilson launched The Movement, which began as a Christian-oriented hip-hop group out of his love for music.
After a while, it morphed into a youth outreach group that wrote songs as vehicles for inspirational stories and messages. He focused on Williamsport and its youth coping with poverty, troubled homes and drugs in neighborhoods.
“We were drawn there,” Wilson said. “At the time when I was going to college, I was in the community. I realized there’s a lot of need for youth.”
As the group grew over the next five years, he said, he started Rise Above, a summer program series “with the intention of bringing people from all races together to challenge our youth to make positive decisions.”
Relying on donations and working with a church, he brought in musicians and guest speakers but also gave local youth a platform to showcase their singing, rapping and dancing. In addition, Wilson created a modest scholarship program, which required applicants to write an essay outlining their goals for school.
“It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was a start,” he said. “It was something they could work towards, and that’s what we wanted to promote, this basic thing to life: You’re in control of your destiny. You make right decisions and you do the right things; your chances of success are much better.”
The group’s messages included racial harmony and service to others. But between serving his charges and working full-time at Rockview state prison as a mental health worker, on top of holding down two part-time jobs, Wilson needed a break.
He took off the summer of 2013. By that time, he had shifted his operations to State College.
And then, another door opened.
‘It’s their space’
The local Unity of Christ Church was looking to make a change and hire a full-time youth leader. Wilson applied, got the job and began in October 2013.
It aligned, sort of, with his goals. Four years earlier, after returning to school, he had earned an elementary education degree from Lock Haven University.
“Because I wanted to be a teacher, and I’m a teacher in a different way now,” he said.
At Unity of Christ, he inherited a functional basement center, nothing special. It had a TV, some chairs. Wilson spotted something else — potential.
“I looked at it and I saw the the vision of it in my head and thought, ‘Wow, we could do something with this,’ ” he said.
Church officials gave their support to the project. Wilson and a friend in construction went to work last March.
Periodically assisted by church youth, the duo used donations and their own funds to erect a wall and create the study room, put up drywall, install a tile floor and lighting and build the stage. They converted a closet and an adjacent space into a tiny two-booth recording studio, complete with foam rubber sound baffles. It’s a work in progress Wilson said he hopes to complete this year.
He drew on the youth not only for muscle.
“Before we did it, I shared my vision with them, but I got their visions of what they wanted because I wanted them to be able to say, ‘I can see myself in this,’ ” he said.
A few months and about $6,000 later, Wilson opened in time for school. He jokes about never ripping up another basement, but he’s proud of the result.
“It’s not the biggest place, but everything I do I try to have a message for the youth,” Wilson said. “(This is) it is not what you have, but what you do with what you have.
“We were able to turn three rooms in a basement into something great, where kids are just coming in. And the great thing about it is, I’m not going out there and saying, ‘Hey, you have to come.’ They’re bringing in friends. That was the whole vision of it.”
These days, the YOU regulars top 20. Sheldon Davis, 16, belonged to the group before Wilson and helped with the basement renovation. Prior to this year, Davis recalled, the basement was a fine place to meet but “it wasn’t anything like it is now.”
“It just seems like the cool bedroom you wish you had,” he said.
By now, not only church members hang out, Davis said. He enjoys the surprised reactions of first-timers who were texted invitations to drop by.
“You’ll say, ‘I’m at church,’ ” Davis said. “Then they’ll come down here and it’s a lot more.”
At Wednesday and Thursday night meetings — one for middle school ages, the other for high school — and Friday and Saturday sessions open to all, Wilson usually mixes in brief pep talk centered on positive thinking before moving on to group improv games and free activities.
On a recent night, he built a chat titled “He Knows Your Name” around three points on a whiteboard: “You are not a mistake,” “Bad situations or injustices do not determine who you are” and “We serve a God who understands us.”
“God is there for you, and this place is here,” Wilson told eight teenagers lounging in The Creative Space. “I’m here for you guys.”
Despite its religious affiliation, he said, YOU has more to do with empowering and challenging than simply reinforcing faith. In fact, he and the crew avoid referring to themselves as a church youth group — it’s too staid, too sedate.
“Labeling, you put something in a box, and these kids are too cool to be put in a box,” Wilson said.
He wants YOU to inspire, to teach youth to inspire others, to foster critical thinking, to kindle creativity like that of the boy given permission to spray paint artwork on the blank walls of the back stairwell.
“It’s their space,” Wilson said. “I’m just a referee in it.”
To be approved, any project or activity has to answer three questions. What is the purpose of the idea? How does it help others? Why should we, as a crew, do it?
Nijel Irvin-Moret, 16, got the green light to DJ weekend jams and indulge his passion for music while entertaining his friends. Though Wilson can “be a little goofy,” Irvin-Moret said, he’s why the center’s popularity is increasing.
“I think he’s dope,” Irvin-Moret said. “It’s cool that he made us our own space.”
‘He really cares’
When interacting with the crew, Wilson sounds like an earnest counselor one moment and a peer the next, sprinkling “fly,” “kicks” and other hip-hop slang into his speech. Good-natured ribbing flies back and forth. Eyes roll sometimes on both sides.
Nobody’s fronting, though. Being real is what counts in the cool-bedroom basement under the church office.
“What we’re saying is: You’re unique,” Wilson said. “Nobody is like you. You don’t have to conform.”
This is Wilson regardless of his patter: a friend at all times, always willing to talk about school, parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, anything weighing on a teenager’s mind.
He’s the organizer of the potluck Thanksgiving meal, though it wound up being mostly chips, and the one arranging a holiday party. He’s a constant source of texts — just checking in, making sure everything’s good.
“I think he really cares,” Janelle Bullock, 17, said. “With any organization, you need a leader who cares about kids. He does a lot for us.”
Wilson’s got more in store. He’ll continue and maybe expand Truth Vision TV, the videos that YOU members write and produce about real-life issues. If all goes to plan, he’ll stage a Rise Above summer festival in the church parking lot.
And throughout the year, he’ll throw himself into keeping the lively, colorful basement on North Gill Street a place where, according to 16-year-old Takiyah Natasi, “you can come and feel comfortable and loved.”
Even when YOU teenagers depart, they don’t leave the fold. At the end of a Friday night party, with midnight approaching, Wilson asked everyone if they were going straight home, and to text him so he would know they arrived safely.
“We’re a crew,” he said. “I want them to know they can reach me any time.”