Being a teenager is hard. It’s a tumultuous time between childhood and adulthood, when you must figure out who you are and who you’ll be as an adult.
That’s why a group of young Sitkans is working to establish a Teen Center to provide a safe space where local teenagers can be themselves. But they want the Teen Center to be more than just a place to hang out.
The group is currently planning an escape rooms fundraiser event for teens 14 to 19 on Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. at UAS Sitka. They hope the event will give local teenagers a preview of what comes next.
The Teen Center is one of two community-led projects backed by last year’s Sitka Health Summit to promote positive health outcomes within the community. But while the Health Summit supports the project they can only grant 2 thousand dollars toward the center’s completion. It’s up to these Sitka teens to fundraise the rest.
Last week, students from both Pacific and Sitka High School visited Sitka businesses to hang up posters and ask for donations. Melissa Gibson is a sophomore at Pacific High working to make the Teen Center a reality.
“Right now we’re working majorly on coming up with a board of students and adults who would be actively working on making the teen center come into fruition,” Gibson said. “That’s the main thing the meetings have been focused on.”
Those meetings are led by teenagers in the group with a bit of guidance from Matthew Jackson, the Community Program Coordinator for Youth Advocates of Sitka. Before setting out to visit he gave the teens some tips on the art of fundraising door-to-door.
Youth Advocates of Sitka is considering supporting the Teen Center as a fiscal sponsor, according to Jackson. That may be enough to pay the rent, he said, but the teens don’t have a building to host the Teen Center just yet.
They’ve been looking for a potential site near downtown Sitka since last year’s Health Summit. Rent and building maintenance are just the start of this fundraising challenge. The teens want like-minded staff be available, to provide resources, social programs, and mentorship.
But why does Sitka need a Teen Center? Gibson says teens need a space to go without being managed by adults.
“In school, you can hang out and stuff but really there’s adults telling you what to do and stuff,” Gibson said. “And really this would be a place for teens to just be teens.”
That constant management conflicts with the newfound sense of agency kids find at the start of their teenage years, Pacific High senior Killian Detemple said.
“Being a teen you have responsibilities and you’re coming into your own in the world but at the same time you have authority over you, Detemple said. “You’re not entirely free as a person. So, the idea of the Teen Center, one of the aspects of it is that we want to show teens that they have the power to control their lives and give that sense of agency some power.”
Detemple said an effective teen center needs to be staffed by the right people: positive models to show teenagers where they have agency and power and show them how to handle things when they have neither.
“What teenagers need most is positive role models to show them that people will have power over you in life, especially in education or family settings, or the workplace, but you have the power to be who you are and make decisions for what you want to do with your life,” he said.
Ideally, staff at the Teen Center will be able to provide counseling to teens in need, Detemple said. But at the very least, he and others in the group want the Center to be a safe space for their peers where they can connect to resources and professional help if they need it.
The idea of creating a safe space intrigued Sitka High junior Aridiane Lindberg. That’s why she recently joined the effort to start a Teen Center.
“People may not see this very well, but a lot of teens do have a lot of things that they struggle with and sometimes they just need a safe space where they can go and they can enjoy themselves,” Lindberg said. “As a junior, I’ve had days when I’ve had mountains of homework and a million other things I need to get done.”
Homework and school responsibilities might seem trivial to some adults – merely nightmares from another era. But the stress these responsibilities induce can contribute to poor mental health outcomes, Lindberg said.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t know how to handle these things,” she said. “And when you’re a teenager, everything can seem more dramatic and that’s at the age where a lot of people struggle the most. So, if there’s a way that they can get help at that age that would be great because people need help regardless of their age, it’s just a lot of teenagers either dismiss it or adults dismiss it as being a teenager.”
Lindberg and the rest of the group hope adults take the time to talk to the teenagers in their lives through hardships and daily stresses. And they hope the Teen Center can provide a permanent space for teens to seek additional support when things get rough.