ATLANTIC CITY — In the new teen center at the local Boys & Girls Club, Michelle Carrera is hoping to create not only a space for teens to go after school, but a place to help them develop into successful adults.
“We’re here to make sure that they have the best future that they can have,” said Carrera, the club’s executive director. “Our youth are full of potential and they just need the correct opportunities.”
Construction on the center is underway at the club’s Pennsylvania Avenue location, which will serve about 400 more teens a year. The club currently serves about 1,900 youth in the city each year.
Carrera said the space will finally provide a dedicated, after-school space for the city’s teens, who previously had to wait until after the younger kids cleared out for access.
The center is designed to keep them on a positive path to a career and out of poverty with college readiness programs and workforce development in hospitality, health and technology.
“This is a strategy to break the cycle of poverty,” Carrera said.
During its strategic planning, the Boys & Girls Club found that the number of teens it was serving was disproportionate to younger children, likely because it wasn’t providing the space for teens when they needed it.
Carrera said on a typical day, the club served 40 teens compared to 150 younger children.
“We were losing our kids when they turned 14 because they had to wait until 6 p.m. to access our building,” Carrera said, because of state laws. “We knew that we needed a positive space for them.”
The Boys & Girls Club got lucky two years ago when the previous occupants of the building directly behind them on Drexel Avenue — the former Ursy Head Start Center — vacated the space, which is owned by the city. In December 2017, Atlantic City entered into a $1-a-year lease with the Boys and Girls Club for the building and the club transferred its younger children to that space.
Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. said the city wanted to help because it supports all organizations that concentrate on the city’s youth.
“Hearing the cry that there isn’t enough for our teens, it is our pleasure to partner with the Boys & Girls Club and any other project supporting our youth,” Gilliam said.
Atlantic City Superintendent Barry Caldwell said many of the high school’s 1,900 students participate in after-school club and sports, but it’s important to have more safe spaces for the students to go and thrive.
“If there’s places for those students to go and participate in those activities I’m all for it, and I’m going to do everything I can to help the Boys & Girls Club be successful,” he said.
The club is working with the school district to promote its programming.
Last fall, the club kicked off its most aggressive fundraising campaign to date, hoping to raise $2 million for the teen center. To date, the campaign has raised $1.5 million, $500,000 of which came from MGM Resorts International, owner of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. About a quarter of the funding is being used for the renovations and the remainder will be used for the programming for the next five years.
“We want to be accountable for the outcomes we are proposing for the community, to our stakeholders and the youth,” Carrera said.
Boys & Girls Club board member and local restaurateur Cookie Till, who is co-chairing the capital campaign for the teen center, said it was Carrera’s vision for the club that made her increase her involvement. She is eager for the business partnerships to create opportunity for local youth.
“I think it’s something that’s going to be great. The kids are going to have the ability to learn a skill before they even get out of high school,” Till said. “I feel like the goal of the whole program and the STEM project are to get kids either comfortably job ready or ready to go to college by the time they graduate, which is huge.”
The teen center is expected to open in June with a summer camp for middle school students to help them transition to high school.
Teens will be able to access the center at 3 p.m. beginning in September.
To donate to the campaign, visit acbgc.org.