Middle school students attend virtual classes with laptops Wednesday at the Augusta Teen Center, located in the back of Buker Center in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — Before joining the Augusta Teen Center of the Boys & Girls club when he was in eighth grade, Richard Blais described himself as “angry” and a different person.

Five years later, Richard is almost halfway through his senior year at Cony High School, looking at his steps beyond graduation.

His plan?

To work with children, after finding how much he enjoyed his time helping younger students with homework and looking after them at the Augusta Teen Center.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere as respectful or knowledgeable as I am now,” Blais said of his time at the center. “A lot of kids come from different backgrounds, and we try to make them better and more represented. We are trying to change the way adults look at teens.”

The Boys & Girls Club changed their name to the Augusta Teen Center of the Boys & Girls Club about a month ago. The change was made, according to Executive Director Charles Huerth, to put the focus more on the mission behind the program — promoting the wellbeing of teenagers and preparing them for their lives ahead.

“The teen center was created to really help with teens and their needs,” Huerth said. “The thing that we have noticed consistently is that there are younger kid programs, but as soon as they reach seventh grade, it doesn’t happen as often.”

Especially with the coronavirus, Huerth said, teens felt more isolated than they have in the past.

Now, teens are being told they can’t participate in activities they normally would do for fun or unable to socialize with other people because of social distancing guidelines.

The hope is the Augusta Teen Center will provide mentorship and a sense of belonging to teens.

“We are trying to help create the new normal,” Huerth said. “We hear a lot of teens (say) they don’t know what to do — it’s crazy. Being able to take that and be leaders to kids, and help them see, ‘This is how we are dealing with this, and this is what we are going to do to move forward.'”

Becca Nirza, a senior at Maine Arts Academy, lives down the street from the Teen Center and has spent almost every day of the last six years there. When she has a bad day, she said all that she needs to do is “go to the club” and see her friends. It’s her favorite place to be.

“We are like a family,” Nirza said, adding that her twin also attends some days. “It’s like having family time.”

Nirza helps with Augusta Teen Center events, including talent shows or an in-person adaption of the new game, “Among Us.” She said club participants love to make their own adaptions of classic games, like Uno, and that activities are a large part of the teens bonding together.

In a regular year, Huerth said the Teen Center would serve around 450 children, from seventh grade through high school.

Now, there are around 20 to 30 teens per day, and students are able to take the bus from Augusta’s Cony Middle and High School directly to the club.

Huerth said the population has grown four times in the four years that he has worked at the center. Attendance is funded through grants, and the center works to keep the program free for teens.

Since Cony is participating in remote, hybrid learning, the Teen Center is offering a HomeRoom program where students can arrive at the center at 7 a.m. and are able to do their homework with help from adults, and have access to WiFi and devices, if needed.

In the coming months the center will be unveiling some new programs that align with its mission. One is geared toward safe driving and the other to help teenagers secure jobs.

“Our focus is to help them understand how to do things as a teenager moving forward,” Huerth said, “and help them with their job skills, driving skills and anything (else) …”

Launching in November, the Safe Driving Program uses virtual reality technology to imitate rainy, snowy or other unsafe driving weather conditions. The goal is to teach teens — or to show them — what it can be like to drive in poor conditions.

The Edge Program aims to help teenagers gain skills that are needed for their first jobs.

“We work with business owners that are more than willing to give kids their first job, but the challenge is that we find many kids don’t know how to stay off their cellphone, or come in when they are needed,” Huerth said. “We try to connect two groups that really need each other. Businesses are interested in what they are doing and willing to help.”

Augusta Teen Center staff member Regan Casey, top left, leads a walk through Youth Memorial Park on Wednesday near the Augusta Teen Center in Augusta. Casey sometimes brings her dogs Barley, center, and Luke, far right, in to socialize with the teens. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The programs are open to teens in the Augusta area, not just from the city itself, and teens can drop in as many or as few days as week as their schedule allows.

Beside the new offerings, the Augusta Teen Center has resources to help teens that were suspended from school and, Huerth’s favorite, the meal program.

In the meal program, the organization’s staff members work alongside teens teaching them how to cook. That food is then served to the teens that show up at the center.

Preparing meals is something that started during the pandemic. At first, 20 to 30 meals were made a week. During the summer that number increased to between 200 and 300 meals per week, reaching a peak of 1,500 meals in a week.

“We try to do it to support them in the ways that they need in the club, and make sure that they are fed every day,” Huerth said. “If a kid is hungry, it’s hard to concentrate in the ways that they need to.”

They try to think of meals, “beyond mac and cheese,” he said, to give teens a skill that they can use later in life. The Augusta Food Bank donates food often, and so does the Child and Adult Food Care Program.

Most of all, though, Huerth wants teens at the center to feel as though they are supported.

“We want to reach every teen that we can,” he said. “We know there is a need out there, and we can work with any teen. We want to make sure they have the support they need to follow the directions that they need for the future.”

According to the teens, they collectively will miss the sense of family that the club has given them upon their graduation this spring.

Both Nirza and Blais already have plans to return to the center either before or after they attend college.

“(What) I will probably miss the most (is) the sense of family,” Blais said. “We are all there for each other in the hardest times, and I’m going to miss (that) when I finally leave and go to college. It’s going to be hard, but I’ll always come back and check in on them.”

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