In every respect, the Purcellville Teen Center looked to be a can't-miss solution to an endemic problem in western Loudoun County: youngsters with nothing to do on the weekend.
Once the program debuted in March, the skating rink that houses the teen center was no longer dead on Fridays nights but teeming with youngsters. Adult residents of Purcellville and nearby towns regarded the program as a welcome measure of support from the county and federal governments. And the teenagers themselves made the most of the newfound opportunity, with hundreds turning out each week to shoot hoops, watch videos or just hang out.
But just as the program got off the ground, the vagaries of federal funding threatened to shut down the whole thing this summer: The grant program that provided the bulk of the teen center's funding was suddenly ruled off-limits to programs such as this one.
So there was a palpable sense of relief at the Purcellville Town Hall on Monday when Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) announced a new $30,000 federal grant for the program, in effect ensuring that it will see its first birthday.
Wolf noted approvingly that no one associated with the center had sought his help. Instead, an editorial in a community newspaper caught his interest and made him consider what he could do. The new funding comes from within the U.S. Justice Department; Wolf is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the department.
"We're glad to play a small role to carry you over," Wolf said. "Because there's nothing more you want as parents than a safe place for your children to go. I remember as a parent, you really do worry when your kids are out."
Janet Clarke, the Purcellville resident who saw the need for the center and helped push for its creation, told Wolf that the center is drawing 200 to 300 middle school students and 60 to 100 high school students to the Purcellville Skating Rink each Friday. The center has two sessions, one from 7 to 9 p.m. for younger teens and the other, for older teens, from 9:30 to 11. The youngsters are supervised by 10 to 15 adult volunteers and a half-dozen staffers from the rink.
Inside, the teenagers have at their disposal video games, pinball machines and basketball goals, the last proving so popular that, in just a few months, two pairs of hoops have already bitten the dust. There also are bean bags and couches on which to crash with friends and a snack bar to keep the energy level high.
"In western Loudoun County, there are 4,000 teenagers and one fast-food restaurant, no bowling alleys, no shopping malls. There is definitely a need for a facility like this," said Clarke, community coalitions coordinator for Loudoun County public schools.
The center had been financed with a Drug Free Communities grant to the school system. But control of that grant was transferred from the Justice Department to the Department of Health and Human Services, which had different rules on how such funding could be spent.
Facing an empty bank account Sept. 30, Clarke and other center officials asked the community for help. The Town of Purcellville, which had given $6,000 at the start, provided an additional $8,000, and a benefit Sept. 24 raised $22,000 -- more than half the center's annual $40,800 budget.
Now, thanks to the grant Wolf arranged, money concerns are less pressing. "We feel like we have done an effective job of motivating the community," said Betsy Young, supervisor of student services for Loudoun schools.
Officials can afford to catch their breath and decide on an approach that will ensure the center's solvency. But Clarke is quick to say she thinks that approach should not include an admission fee.
"Keeping it free fosters a sense of connection with the community, that this is something the community considers important enough to pay for," she said. "Plus, a lot of at-risk youth come and can't necessarily afford to buy food at the snack bar. If you have an admission charge, they'll just stop coming."