Being a teenager in small-town, rural Alaska means getting creative about finding things to do and meeting people. Over the past year, a group of Sitka teens has taken matters into their own hands: they’re building a teen center. Just this month the group secured a spot in the heart of downtown on Harbor Drive, right next to the Yellow Jersey bike shop. Now comes the fun, and challenge, of making the space their own.
The project launched last year with support from the Sitka Health Summit. After several months of hunting, the group finally secured a space on Harbor Drive, right next to the Yellow Jersey bike shop. Earlier this year, the group settled on a name for the space: The Cloud.
“The representation of the cloud is like you’re kind of free in the clouds, having your own space to roam around and be free like if you were flying in the clouds,” said Isabel Carter, a sophomore at Sitka High School.
Carter is one of a handful of local teens involved in the project. In a town with a single-screen movie theater and limited entertainment, teenagers are eager for somewhere to gather away from family and school. “There’s not much to do in Sitka,” she said. She sees a real need for a space for teens to gather, make their own family, and to get away from adults and younger kids.
Some of the teens involved in the project met in the new space on Tuesday afternoon to workshop what they want it to be. Gavin Jones is a junior in high school and has lived in Sitka his entire life.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “On a small island there isn’t not much to do.” He hopes the Cloud will provide teenagers a safe place to hang out and spend time.
For Jones, a part of the appeal has been the process of building a center from the ground up. Financial support from Youth Advocates of Sitka and a discount from the building owners helped. Jones has learned a ton of “just normal stuff” in the process.
“We have to take into account how much money we have to spend on remodeling, how much it would cost to rent, like how much stuff we have to buy,” he said. “It’s kind of overwhelming.” Overwhelming, but exciting. Jones sees how the experience of running the numbers and evaluating cost could help him as an adult.
Right now, the Harbor Drive space is a blank slate. Save a single, solid wood desk there is no furniture. The walls are unadorned. The group secured a donated pool table already, and the teenagers are hoping for couches, hammocks, board games, maybe even video games.
“Of course Mario Kart is the best type of friendship-breaker,” said Sommer Cranford, a recent high school graduate. “That or Monopoly.”
Cranford hopes the teen center will provide a place for teenagers to be themselves – and learn healthy conflict-resolution. “If [teenagers] have a place where they can go and be a teenager they might be happier,” Cranford said. “There will be, like, less tension in the society.”
A small kitchen in the back got the group thinking about the possibility of opening a small cafe or retail business.
“We could have a barbecue out front,” Jones said. “Like hamburgers and hot dogs.”
“I feel like if we do something with drinks we should make it a wide variety,” said Cranford. “Not everyone likes coffee.”
“I love coffee, I’ll have you know!” said Jones.
“[We could], like get like sparkling water and mix different fruits in it and…like have an Alaska twist on it,” said Kodi Richards, an eighth-grader at Blatchley Middle School.
The group didn’t make any big decisions about menus Tuesday but it was an opportunity to begin creating and shaping a space of their own. They sketched their ideas on sheets of paper.
“Is that a hammock, Isabel?” asked Matthew Jackson, the community program coordinator at Youth Advocates of Sitka, which has supported the project.
“Yeah. There’s two hammocks!” Carter said, while putting finishing touches on a perspective sketch of the space. She envisions a living room area in the front of the space with two couches and a rug and a small TV for either video games or movies. Then, further back, the hammocks. The pool table sat in the back of the room, by the kitchen. “That’s all I have so far,” she said.
Jones asked her what she thought about the kitchen area. “I could do a second paper…” she said.
Furniture aside, Cranford looks forward to a space where what teens want comes first. “Not a lot of people understand teens and what they want,” Cranford said. “Knowing that this is now ours and all we gotta do is make it look like a teen center and a place to have fun and relax it just feels really nice.”
Whether they decide on barbecue or fish and chips, couches or hammocks, The Cloud is well on its way to providing a space for teenagers to just be.