Laughing and heated debates erupt on a Tuesday night in Bridgeton.
It’s a night of food, drinks and jokes as a group of anywhere from 10 to 20 teens gather to hang out.
It might all seem completely natural, except for the painting of George Washington on the wall and a bust of Abraham Lincoln in the corner.
These teens are gathered at the Bridgeton Public Library for their Teen Library Council meeting.
Instead of getting into general after-school mischief, the close-knit group chooses to spend its Tuesday evenings at the library in a meeting that is somewhere between a class and a youth group.
“I want to pet llamas. I want to do a llama day.”
“Is that serious?”
“We’ve done it before!”
Sam Rotz, the children and teen coordinator at the library, corrals the group to ensure that through the fun, decisions about programming and library materials gets made.
“Believe it or not, it’s always like this,” Rotz said of the lively crew discussing a potential trip to the Cohanzick Zoo. “It’s ultimately a time for fun.”
The group of teens mostly from Bridgeton High School recognize the crime around them in their community. On Sunday, a Bridgeton man was shot and killed about a mile from their meeting place.
But the students take pride in their community’s rich history, and a love of literature has brought and kept them together. For many group members, the Teen Library Council meetings provide a time to escape life’s pressures and responsibilities.
The group is planning for the next few months with calendars sprawled out on the table in front of them. A Minecraft Day, Pi Day in March — March 14, or 3.14 — and other ideas are thrown out for scheduling. There’s an occasional airing of grievances of pie flavors that would be presented at their Pi Day. Library-wide laser tag was tabled until further notice due to logistical concerns shortly after it was proposed.
When the discussion turned to an upcoming “Teen Chocolate Cake Day and Nerf Battle,” a roomful of voices began to topple over one another.
“Once again, we’ve plummeted into chaos,” Rotz said, in defeat.
But the group had an extra reason to celebrate at this gathering. A burst pipe in October and eventual flooding closed the library’s main building, with a pop-up library across the street until Jan. 10. Some of the group was back together for the first time since the nearly three-month hiatus.
For many in the group, Tuesdays at teen council serves as much more than a time to relax and hang out with friends.
“I consider this to be a pretty important part of the community,” said Kevin Austin, 20, of Bridgeton.
Austin said he got involved in library events in his preteen years. Now outside of the typical sixth- to 12th-grade age group, he continues to attend the teen council meetings to help make sure the program continues to stay strong.
“I ‘volunwork’ here,” Austin said. “I’ve invested about eight years because when I was younger, my grandmother used to bring me here. When she passed away, I went into a bit of a slump, but attending is like keeping piece of my grandmother’s memory.”
Reggie Webster, 20, also kept ties to the group past high school and still attends events. He said like other members, he has a younger brother excited to join when he turns 12.
“For me, I was about 13 and I was a shy kid,” Webster said. “I loved video games and there was a bunch of kids here like me — in my category.”
Webster said this group of teens has become closer than some groups of friends in high school because, with interests in card games, game nights, video games and literature, students sometimes feel isolated.
“It’s still a library, not a rec room, so we do have book discussions and intellectual conversations, and we don’t want to change that,” Webster said. “You don’t find this in high school. This is people who aren’t normally social being social.”
For him, having a constant designated time of camaraderie became especially important when he learned his father had cancer a year ago. He said he shouldered family responsibility and internalized stress, putting off college until his father recovered.
“It made me age emotionally,” he said. “But this made me remember that I’m 19.”
Having a group of friends to engage with helped Webster alleviate some of the stress in the absence of college classes and activities. Now, he hopes the decade-long teen council will continue to grow in size and ability.
Both Austin and Webster noted the community of Bridgeton has had to overcome a negative stigma of high crime over the years, which has made a social group for teens even more important in their community.
“These kids make this program,” Rotz said. “They support each other.”