New Urbana Youth Center: ‘This opening has been very encouraging’

Charles Williams, a voluteer at the Urbana Youth Center, puts snacks out for the young people Tuesday before they arrive after school. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Charles Williams, a voluteer at the Urbana Youth Center, puts snacks out for the young people Tuesday before they arrive after school. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A new Urbana Youth Center (UYC) has already exceeded staff expectations by attracting more student interest than anticipated following its first week.

The UYC, located at 160 W. Market St. in the former Champaign Public Library Building, also known as Carey Auditorium, has drawn 270 middle and high school students since its opening on Feb. 18. It is open 2:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and is free to use by students in grades 6-12 who live in the geographic area of Urbana City Schools.

It contains three areas where young visitors can socialize and play games, do homework and read and get snacks or even a meal.

“We thought if we got 20 that first night it would be great, but to get 140 was absolutely wonderful,” said Justin Weller, UYC executive director and lead project manager. “This youth center was designed to be accessible. This opening has been very encouraging.”

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A 2018 U.S. Census Bureau study that found one in three children in Urbana was living in poverty inspired the need for such a center. The nonprofit GrandWorks Foundation, which works to restore and revive community places including the restoration of the Gloria Theatre, is heading the UYC project.

The goal was to provide a safe, monitored space for kids. Students expressed interest and the Urbana City Schools Board of Education endorsed the project, which launched in November 2019.

Weller mentioned a survey of students revealed what they wanted was a place to hang out and to receive life skills training. Thought went into three key areas to help kids most.

The hangout center is where visitors can do everything from play video games and board games to just socializing. The homework and mentoring area help students with their schoolwork through tutors and volunteers.

As some kids may not have food options, an after-school nutrition area offers snacks and even a free meal served 6-7 p.m. There is also transportation available from the middle and high schools to the center.

In addition, kids can get free hygiene items including shampoo, soap and feminine products.

Students wanting to use the center are required to register with parental consent and can come three times as a guest before being required to register. There are more than 270 total registrants so far and there are three staffers along with other volunteers.

“Obviously the safety of our students and staff is a priority,” Weller said. “Our staff is diligent about what we can do.”

The staff is vaccinated, everybody is required to wear masks, students have to check in and out and their parents or guardians are texted with those times and an electronic system has tracking capabilities. Those who serve food are also required to wear gloves and masks at all times.

While the UYC is currently only open two days a week, Weller anticipates expanding to four days a week by year’s end. And there will be more programs available.

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In the works are life skill classes and classes in yoga, meditation, drama and the arts and summer programming.

The UYC has raised $60,000 in financial donations since November and continues to fundraise and always accepting donations to help ongoing support. Weller sees a potential tax levy in the future to support the center.

Financial donations can be as simple as writing a check or by debit or credit card. People can make donations through a special page, Facebook.com/UYcenter.

Not only were the many students who showed up important to Weller, but he’s already seen the appreciation. The UYC has drawings for things as small as a gift card to a local business to big prizes including a video gaming system and television.

One girl won a television and couldn’t believe it was hers to keep, she couldn’t speak according to Weller, which is what makes it worthwhile, helping where needed.

“For a rural community like this it’s important,” he said. “When there are no sports, there aren’t a lot of safe activities. This shows there’s resounding student interest.”

For more information on the UYC, go to www.urbanayouth.center.

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