Five hundred Loudoun County youths spoke with one voice Wednesday: They want a teen center.
"If you have a teen center, you can create a healthy environment where all the teens can get together with their friends," said Jessica Walker, 17, chairman of the student members of the Loudoun County Advisory Commission on Youth. "This event shows the teens support it so much, the adults will be taking it more seriously."
The teens had gathered at Lansdowne Resort for a "Step Up" Youth Symposium to find solutions to what a survey taken earlier this year identified as problems confronting Loudoun youth. The survey identified five key concerns: not having anything to do for fun, rapid changes in their homes and community, a lack of public transportation, bullying and drugs and alcohol.
The teens who were invited to participate came from across the county and included honor roll students, students from alternative and private schools, and home-schoolers. They were divided into five groups, each assigned to explore one of the problems. At the end of the afternoon, each group announced its consensus to the symposium.
The teen center, or "clubhouse" as some called it, was a high priority mentioned by all five groups. The teens presented a vision of an adult-supervised facility that would be easy to get to and offer after-school recreation. Some said it would give young people a place to catch up with friends separated by school boundary realignments, and others said it could offer an outlet for relaxation without exposure to illegal substances, as well as a safe haven from school bullies.
Opening a teen center "is not undoable," said Carol Kost, chairman of the youth advisory commission. She said, however, that more immediate action could be taken on other proposals, such as increasing opportunities for mentoring, scheduling talks by motivational speakers and organizing more intramural sports.
Candy deButts, deputy Loudoun County administrator for human services, said all the students' recommendations would be incorporated into a document submitted to the Board of Supervisors, the School Board and other county governmental bodies. They will also be presented to a group of business leaders this week in an effort to solicit the funds required for action.
"We hit an underlying awareness that we need to do something," said Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), who initiated the youth survey this summer.
Snow said he was shaken when three Loudoun teenagers died in less than a week this spring. Broad Run High School student Donald Nicholas Shomaker, 15, was shot March 22 by a 17-year-old friend and former classmate, and five days later, Stone Bridge High students Nicholas J. Pendola, 16, and Anthony Cibelli-Mason, 17, were killed when they were thrown from the bed of a pickup while riding down a blocked-off road.
Snow said Loudoun County needs to reevaluate its support structures for families to find ways to better prevent tragedies.
"I don't think they're what you'd call an integrated net," he said.