In Bel Air, New Director Revives An Oasis For Youths

November 25, 1990|By Terri Snyder | Terri Snyder,Contributing writer

"If it wasn't for this place, I'd be driving around with my friends looking for trouble," says Chad, a 16-year-old from Bel Air.

The "place" is the Bel Air Youth Center at 20 S. Main Street in the basement of a former Methodist Church. The county owns the building and allows the youth center to use it free.

Every weekday afternoon after school hours, Chad and between 15 and 25 other children gather in the basement for pool, table tennis, other games and plenty of conversation.

The center also provides free tutoring services for students in four rooms on an upper floor of the building. Right now there is a waiting list to get into the tutoring classes.

Seminars on teen-age problems, such as parent-child conflicts, intimate relationships and drug and alcohol abuse, are also offered periodically.

The center opened in 1981, but closed in 1987 for a variety of reasons, including reports of drug use. In January 1989, at the behest of the Bel Air Police Department, the youth center reopened with a new director, a more-focused mission and tough rules barring drug and alcohol use and misbehavior.

The new director, Tipton Bowman, says 98 teens are regulars at the center at least three times a week. In the past three months, 600 youngsters have spent time at the youth center, she said.

Bowman, the mother of four adult children, drives 40 miles five days a week between her Cecil County home and the center. She is working on a master's degree in sociology and psychology at Towson State University.

The center operates on a shoe-string budget -- basically a state grant of $16,900 that pays the director's salary and not much else. For example, the county pays the electric bill and now that county grant money for a part-time aide has run out, Bowman has had to turn to adult volunteers to help run the center.

But the center has to pay other bills. Some of the money for those bills come from rock 'n' roll concerts the center offers some Friday nights for young teens. Those concerts raise about $50 or $60 for the center and provides area teens with one of the few cultural outlets geared to them.

The youth center also receives some donations, but community support has been slow to come, says Bowman. She thinks community misconceptions about the center as a place where teens waste time have kept contributions to a trickle.

Lt. Joe Swam, of the Bel Air Police Department and an adviser to the center, agrees.

"Most people say that's just a place for kids to hang out. If they're going to hang out, isn't it better for them to hang out in an environment supervised by adults?" he says.

Many teens who can be found every afternoon at the center are children whose parents both work. While most are old enough to be alone at home, they come to the center for companionship.

While Bowman says she has affection for the youths and wants them to enjoy themselves at the center, she tolerates no disruptions.

On an afternoon when a reporter stopped by, she ushered three boys out the door after they started hitting each other with pool cues.

"No fighting" is one of the rules Bowman laid down at the center.

When youngsters apply for membership to the youth center, they are handed a list of rules.

Those rules include: no weapons, no gambling, no stealing, no destruction of property, no visible displays of affection and no drug or alcohol use.

Before the youth center shut down in 1987, it had developed a reputation as a place where some teens used alcohol and drugs. When Bowman took over operations at the center in 1989, she began strict enforcement of a no drugs and alcohol policy.

That policy and Bowman's leadership have been credited by some youth center members with turning the center around.

One unusual change Bowman introduced at the center was getting teens to volunteer for the center's board of directors. They take their responsibility very seriously, such as Adam, 17.

A regular at the center, Adam plays the trumpet, made the All-State jazz band and wants to study architecture in college after he graduates from Bel Air High School in June.

He says Bowman's strict rules have changed the center for the better.

Now teens attempt to police each other during hours of operation, 3 p.m.

until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Bowman says she knows most of the youngsters' parents. But there are some youths who have come in every day for almost two years, and Bowman has never seen their parents visit or even call. Those youngsters are the ones she thinks really need the place.

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