Youth center moves its activities to churches

Organization forced out by neighbor and landlord


December 12, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Tucked away on one end of a bustling Cape Saint Claire shopping strip, an unremarkable, windowless office space has served for the past two years as a youth center and place of refuge for the area's bored or troubled teen-agers.

But tomorrow, the youth center will move out of this Broadneck Peninsula community's commercial center - forced out by neighbor and landlord Graul's Market over nuisance concerns.

The Broadneck Family Youth Center's move has disheartened some members, who worry that it will not have the same casual atmosphere in its new location at a nearby church.

"It's like home," said Matt Coppage, 16, as he sat on the center's carpeted floor on a recent afternoon playing the fantasy card game "Magic: The Gathering" with David Wilbert, 18.

"We won't be able to be as loud and crazy anymore."

But the freedom enjoyed by the teens might have contributed to the nonprofit center's removal.

In October, supermarket owner Fred Graul told the youth center he had other plans for the space and was ending its month-to-month lease. The center has been a tenant for six years, first renting a storefront space.

Chuck Sellner, the center's director, said the decision took him by surprise.

"We had no reason to ever wish to move," Sellner said.

"We assumed this space would be ours as long as we were around."

Graul said in an interview that he decided to look for another tenant after receiving "numerous complaints from customers, businesses, residents and the police" about disruptive youngsters.

Sellner said the center was not responsible for all the reported problems, some of which were caused by teen-agers not affiliated with the center.

But he acknowledged that the youth center kids sometimes got noisy, particularly on nights when the center held concerts featuring local bands. He said he urged the teen-agers to be more discreet and suspended the concerts a few months ago when he could not curb the noise.

Some teens said that the center has its flaws but that it has been a place they could count on during difficult times.

"When kids don't feel like they have people to rely on, they pretty much come here for that," said Jackie Figliozzi, 17.

Jackie, a Broadneck High School senior, said that counseling sessions with Sellner helped her get through a family crisis a few years ago.

"He's been watching out for me ever since," she said.

Sellner, 36, a former youth pastor at churches in the Broadneck area and in Virginia, said he has counseled hundreds of teens and their families since the center opened in 1997.

"Cape is a very good community," he said.

"But like in any community, there are folks who slip through the cracks. ... There were a lot more families with crisis issues than I had expected."

The center, which has registered more than 600 teens since it opened, is operated by Sellner and about 15 adult volunteers. It is funded through grants and private donations.

About a dozen youngsters attend its recreational program each weekday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and a handful take part in academic tutoring.

Sellner says that his family counseling service has grown over the years through word of mouth and that he counsels more than 100 teen-agers and their families each year.

With the center's move, its services will be scattered among different locations.

The counseling office and recreational center - which includes billiards, foosball and ping-pong tables; several well-worn couches; computer stations; and an indoor basketball hoop - will reopen Jan. 15 across the street, at Broadneck Baptist Church.

Rev. Melanie Vaughn-West, the church's pastor, said she is pleased to be able to help the youth center continue its work.

"It fills such an incredible need for the community," Vaughn-West said.

Christ Our Anchor Presbyterian Church has offered to be host to the tutoring program, and concerts will be held at College Parkway Baptist Church.

Some of the youth center's members worried that people would not use its services once they moved to the churches.

"I know a lot of kids [who] don't feel comfortable in churches," said Blair Coppage, 14, Matt's sister.

But Vaughn-West said the church will not be involved in the center, other than sharing its space.

"We will try to stay out of their business in every way."

Sellner said he's disappointed that he could not keep the youth center's services in one place. But he's grateful for the churches' assistance and keeps reminding himself to look at the bright side.

"I do like the fact that we're going to be spread throughout the community because of the symbolism," he said.

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