Clubbin' as a Hip Preteen Scene

Nine-year-olds Rachel Rabinovitz, left, Marisa DeFilippo and Evangeline Pergantis at the Potomac Community Center's weekly Club Friday.
Nine-year-olds Rachel Rabinovitz, left, Marisa DeFilippo and Evangeline Pergantis at the Potomac Community Center's weekly Club Friday. (Ricky Carioti - Twp)
By Cari Shane Parven
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 4, 2007

It's a scene of organized chaos. Hundreds of preteens move in one direction through the Potomac Community Center, then turn around and go right back where they came from. It appears they're doing a whole lot of nothing, but it's also clear they're having a blast.

"It's fun," said 10-year-old Zach Shaffer of the center's Club Friday, which attracts several hundred 8- to 11-year-olds every week. "You get to play with your friends in a different way than at school."

On Friday nights between October and April, the Potomac Community Center and others across Montgomery County are at the top of the local 'tween social scene. It is during these informal parties that the youth get to play bingo, make crafts, dance to hip-hop, play dodge ball or just sit and talk.

At the Potomac Community Center on a recent Friday, children huddle at booths and tables in the snack room, gobbling down slices of pizza. In the corner a movie is playing, but it is too noisy to hear any of the conversation. Sweaty kids run in and out of the room grabbing drinks from a table of more than 150 colorful plastic bottles purchased earlier in the evening and labeled for easy identification.

A group of youngsters heads into the arcade, where games of pool and table tennis are punctuated by cries of victory. Still others funnel into the gymnasium where, with an assistant's help, coach Doug Wilson transforms gym time, which is mostly basketball, into a massive game of dodge ball.

"My daughter has been waiting with bated breath, dying to come in, see the scene," said Mona Spivack of her third-grade daughter, who has been watching her fifth-grade brother leave home to go to Club Friday for two years.

"They think it's a rite of passage," said Spivack's husband, Peter Spivack. "It seems like a great place for kids to socialize."

That is exactly what Club Friday founder Linda Barlock, Potomac Community Center's director, had in mind when the program was conceived 15 years ago. In 1991, budget cuts forced the county to close all the community centers on Friday nights, leaving parents outraged. Barlock and her center's advisory board petitioned the recreation department to allow a Friday night youth program with a fee so that it wouldn't cost the county any money.

"The first night, 54 kids came to Club Friday," said Barlock, describing the turnout crowd as pleasing and shocking"We winged it, and it just grew. I think it's the best socializing. It's the program the kids want."

Children who live in the Potomac area start talking about Club Friday before the fliers come home in their backpacks the first week of school. The social club is so popular that membership is based on a lottery. Registrations are pulled out of a box in mid-September. The 550 who get in must pay a $40 annual membership fee. The rest are put on a waiting list. This year, 87 kids are on the waiting list, down from years past when as many as 300 had to wait, according to Barlock. Those on the waiting list can come as guests of members for $5 per visit.

Potomac Community Center's Club Friday became so popular that it caught the eye of other community centers in Montgomery, and more Club Fridays sprang up, including at Clara Barton in Cabin John, Longwood in Olney, Fairland in Silver Spring, Leland in Chevy Chase and Germantown Community Center.

But unlike the program in Potomac, most of the others are not held weekly. All of them, however, charge a fee.

The Potomac center and a few others also offer a program for middle-school students.

"The kids grew up but didn't want to stop coming," Barlock said of the early years of Club Friday. So she created After Hours for students in grades six through eight. Unlike Club Friday, it meets only the first Friday of every month from 9:15 to 11 p.m., once the younger kids have cleared out. Club Friday operates from 7 to 9 p.m.

Despite the focus of Club Friday as a safe place for preteens to hangout, some parents are uncomfortable with the concept. "Some of my friends haven't let their kids come," said Mona Spivack. "I'm guessing it's because they think there's a lot of boy-meets-girl, but there's really not much of that."

First-time parent volunteer Michael Warshaw was impressed by what he saw. "I think this is fantastic. I was eager to do this," he said of volunteering. "I've been hearing about it, and I've wanted to see it."

To deal with parent concerns, a condition of each child's yearly membership in Club Friday is that one parent per child chaperone once during the club season, which ends just before spring break. Every Friday, there are at least 30 parent volunteers, and police stop by regularly.

"Nothing goes on that a parent can't control," said Richard Greene, program supervisor at the community center. "And if they can't handle it, they just grab me. I'm always here. Better for me to be the bad guy than them."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company