It was overcast and starting to drizzle when a dozen kids gathered after school on a slightly muddy lawn in front of the Blackhawk mobile home park in Centre Hall.
They wouldn’t normally have been outside on such a quiet, dreary day but it was a Tuesday, and that meant someone from the Centre County Youth Service Bureau would be there to hang out with them.
Matt Lower, an Americorps member, and Ben Weidler, a Penn State intern with the bureau, arrived and quickly put the elementary, middle and high school-aged students into a long line with linked arms. The kids began to rotate as if they were a human windmill, and as they did, the rain let up and everyone’s mood lifted.
Lower and Weidler are part of the bureau’s mobile outreach team Streetworks, which takes positive activities for youth to neighborhoods throughout Centre County. It focuses on neighborhoods that are low-income, have been identified by police as a trouble area for youth, or are geographically isolated from activities for young people.
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A change in federal funding for the county Youth Service Bureau has dramatically increased the scope and activity of Streetworks, although Youth Service Bureau workers worry that the change comes at the expense of its youth centers in Bellefonte and Snow Shoe.
Since the fall, Streetworks events that had taken place once a month at various locations have been offered weekly. That’s great for Josh Crater, a 16-year-old who’s lived in Blackhawk most of his life and goes to all the Streetworks events. “It gets everyone together to learn more stuff about other people,” Crater said. “Most of us have parents that work late and it’s harder to get down (to the youth center).”
The Youth Service Bureau last fall received a new $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to support Streetworks. But they lost a $100,000 grant that, for the past six years, has helped pay for the bulk of the costs of operating the Bellefonte and Snow Shoe youth centers.
“It was kind of devastating to us,” said Denise McCann, division director of community-based services for the Youth Service Bureau. “We did have to negotiate to be able to keep open the (youth) centers.”
McCann said the federal department is allowing the bureau’s youth outreach workers, who are paid with the grant, to spend half their time in the neighborhoods and the other half in the centers.
That means the Mountaintop Youth Center in Snow Shoe has had to reduce its hours by half, to 10 per week, and is open only on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The Bellefonte Youth Center has maintained its 20-hour schedule at five days per week, but the Penn State interns whose help has made that possible will be leaving in May.
Meredith Morris staffs the Mountaintop Youth Center two days a week and spends the rest of her time at Streetworks sites.
“It’s hard because everyone needs this,” Morris said, while watching kids at Blackhawk chuck a rubber chicken to each other in some unique version of tag. “You wish the youth center would be open five days a week and you wish you could come here every day.”
Both the centers and Streetworks offer many of the same programs, such as team building or anti-bullying, said outreach coordinator Penny Horner. But the centers also serve a broader purpose by providing a safe place for children from various neighborhoods to go after school, thereby reducing vandalism and other negative activities.
Streetworks offers a more targeted approach.
“It’s taking the youth center out of the center and going into the different areas,” Horner said. “We want to go into some of these neighborhoods where we’ve been told by the police or community groups could use some activities and we want to go in and work with the families that are there.”
The bureau’s other Streetworks sites are in State College, Boalsburg and Philipsburg, and the team is planning to add some new locations.
The mobile outreach team includes bureau counselors, volunteers and interns who provide regular recreational and educational activities, as well as snacks and even toiletries or blankets for those who need them.
This winter, when it was too cold for outdoor activities, the outreach team would drive kids to one of the youth centers or other indoor recreational space — but such space isn’t always available.
“A lot of the areas don’t have community rooms and we’re always looking for places to take them,” said Vanessa Baronner, a senior outreach counselor.
The bureau has an agreement with Calvary Baptist Church in State College to use some of its indoor recreational space after school at no cost, and McCann said she would welcome any other groups in the county that can offer help.
“What they do is so important and they do it on a shoestring all the time,” said Kendel Yackeren, Calvary’s office manager.
McCann said she’d like to look into creating an endowment to help fund prevention programs so that lapses in grants or donations won’t put them in jeopardy.
Despite those concerns, she’s happy to see the Streetworks program expand.
“I think it’s important because you have all these places where kids can’t get to a youth center, and they need to know people care about them,” McCann said. “The kids are having fun, but the purpose is to get them engaged so that they’re not getting into trouble.”
Eddie Cerritos, an athletic 15-year-old boy, still hasn’t gotten used to the isolation of his new neighborhood at Blackhawk, where he moved from State College with his mother and 12-year-old sister last fall.
He said it was tough to change high schools and find new friends, so he was glad his new neighborhood came with an unexpected bonus of a weekly Streetworks event. He and his sister go every Tuesday to hang out with new people of all ages.
“Dealing with the new school was hard and I love sports but I couldn’t join the baseball team this year,” Eddie Cerritos said. “But I really enjoy hanging out with the little kids. That’s what I like to do.”