The Urbana Youth Center, a project of the local GrandWorks Foundation, has been open for more than a year now and is preparing to significantly expand its facility.
Serving Urbana-based junior high and high school students, the youth center has steadily renovated the old Champaign County Library building located on West Market Street.
During an open house on December 9 that featured youth center participants addressing community leaders from the city, county and Urbana City Schools, youth center Executive Director Justin Weller unveiled plans for the facility expansion after students and staff took to the auditorium stage and explained how the center has changed the trajectory of young lives in only its first year of operations.
The founders and staff of the center detailed how hundreds of youths are participating in the various activities based at the center. It is open two days a week, but the goal is to be open more days per week as the facility grows.
Students have found refuge, fellowship and a sense of purpose through activities like homework assistance, group recreation and field trips to places like local animal shelters and workplaces, according to presentations made during the open house. One particularly poignant story detailed the experience of a student who urgently sought counsel from youth center staff during a dark crisis in life. The staff recounted how grateful they were to have been placed in a position to help a young person during a moment of acutely desperate emotional need.
Weller reiterated that such stories at the youth center are multiplying significantly faster than the current facility can accommodate. Weller detailed finding one youth center participant napping in a chair, only to learn the youth didn’t always have a bed designated just for him at home, causing his rest to be interrupted. Stories of insufficient domestic footing for some youths are heart-tugging and emphasize the importance of a place where they can turn for help, youth center staffers explained.
Weller detailed how demand is quickly outpacing the supply as youths have eagerly embraced the opportunity of being involved in the center. As an example of youth involvement and institutional responsibility, the liquid refreshments offered during the open house to visitors were served in glasses, not disposable cups. The youths are invested not only using the facility, but also washing up afterward – with the large array of glasses being offered as an example of that sustainable cycle of learning and valuing resources.
“We are looking at a total investment of about $2 million throughout 2022 to expand the current footprint of the youth center by adding an east and west wing,” Weller said. “These plans are inspired by what the library had considered doing in the 1980s.”
Instead of renovating the old building on Market Street, the library relocated to a larger structure in a former supermarket building on the east side of Urbana. Since then the old library building on Market Street was used by a private owner before being sold for use as a youth center.
Weller said $1.5 million is the amount the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services will provide to the Urbana Youth Center’s facility addition through their Capital Youth Resiliency funds.
“We have been in conversations with contractors and anticipate the remaining balance of about $500,000 will be acquired through in-kind donations,” he explained.
The youth center has approached the relevant city governing boards about its construction goals, which include breaking ground in April 2022 and beginning to use the new spaces by late fall or early winter next year. Weller said the plan is to continue most operations at the youth center while the expansion project is underway.
“Our expansion plans have already been presented to the Design and Review Board at the city and the initial concept we introduced was approved unanimously,” Weller said. “Based on input from the group, we’ve made some adjustments and will revisit the board to share the changes. Fortunately, zoning should not be an issue based on our use of the structure and the facility’s location.”
Pulling together for a goal
Major Urbana industrial employers have quickly thrown financial support behind the youth center with the goal of growing the future workforce and helping provide stability to a generation that comes from widely varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Weller is attempting to gather more community support to assure operations and future growth.
“It is a testament to the importance of this project that the mayor of Urbana, Champaign County Commissioners, and the Urbana City Schools Board of Education were represented at this (open house) event,” Weller said. “Each of these groups will be receiving an official request from the youth center for financial support.”
Weller detailed how the youth center is actually an investment in the future viability of the community.
“The reality is that our city, schools and county all benefit from the services we provide to students. In fact, according to national research, each dollar invested in after-school programs will save the community three or more dollars in the future. If each of those three entities can commit just $5,500 a month, we can fund our comprehensive lineup of programs for 2022. That investment over one year will save the community at least $590,000. The Mental Health, Drug, and Alcohol Services Board of Logan & Champaign Counties is an excellent example of a public entity that has stepped up financially to help serve the students at the youth center,” Weller said.
“Other community leaders who are not part of those groups can also help by providing financial support, volunteers to aid in programming or in-kind support such as providing meals. The Caring Kitchen and Mercy Health Urbana Hospital are perfect examples of organizations already making a difference at the youth center by offering meals for students at the youth center for free,” he said.
Weller specifically noted private sector contributors Bundy Baking Solutions, Rittal and Park National Bank are leading the local business effort to provide monetary support to the youth center.
“The message is this: everyone has a part to play,” he said. “We need all of our community leaders to proactively develop ways to support the development of these 550 children who will be our future leaders and workforce.”
Retaining a vibrant population
According to data presented by Weller during the open house, without intervention such as that being undertaken by the youth center, the community could lose thousands of young people in a potential exodus over the coming decades as part of a projected local population plunge.
“It will take ambitious thinking to prevent the loss of about 7,000 people from Champaign County over the next decade – as projected by the Census Bureau. That is a significant loss for a county of 40,000 people,” Weller said.
A solution he proposes is to expand the success enjoyed by the new youth center by helping to establish similar facilities in nearby villages and in neighboring city Bellefontaine.
“I sincerely believe the number one thing we can do to prevent and even possibly reverse population decline is to invest in our young people. They need to know our community values them and wants each of them to find a good career here at home,” Weller said.
“Yes, it is ambitious to launch satellite locations in Champaign and Logan Counties. It is also necessary. Whether we can establish those facilities will depend on the local leaders, particularly the elected officials. If they join us in embracing an ambitious future for our youth and our communities, then we can absolutely make it happen.”