- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

GRAND LEDGE, Mich. (AP) - The modest two-story house with white trim and a blue exterior in Grand Ledge may look like a family home, but it isn’t.

For over a decade, it’s been a safe haven for teenagers, the Lansing State Journal (https://on.lsj.com/1oxdHGY ) reported.

On any given weekday afternoon more than a dozen teens, ages 13 to 16, spend a few hours there. They sit in the first-floor living space working on homework or talking.

They gather around the pool table in the center of the room playing a game. A few take to the kitchen, baking cookies or making large batches of macaroni and cheese, dishing it up into bowls so everyone can have an after-school snack.

In the last 12 years hundreds of local kids have visited the YES Center, short for Youth Enrichment Services Center.

Without the center, most of the teens who frequent it would leave school every day and go home to empty houses. It’s somewhere to go in the hours between the end of classes and when their parents get out of work, and that was the point all along.

Aaliyah Cary, 14, of Mulliken has been there every day after school for two years.

“My house is empty after school,” she said. But the center is filled with her friends - and she isn’t sure where she’d spend those hours if she couldn’t go there.

Jay Miller has been the nonprofit’s director for last five years. He said being that in-between place for teens continues to drive its success.

“This gives them a sense of belonging,” Miller said. “Here they’re part of something.”

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Vicki Paski helped start the nonprofit 13 years ago.

The local business owner was sitting in a Grand Ledge Rotary Club meeting when someone brought forth the concept - an after-hours, drop-in, come-as-you-are teen center that would cater to the needs of youth who aren’t involved in extra-curricular programs and have nowhere to go right after school gets out.

It made sense, Paski said.

“There was a need to fill that time,” she said. “They needed someplace to go where we could give them positive things to do and teach them to make positive choices.”

She wasn’t the only community leader behind it. Members of the Grand Ledge Alliance for Quality Community, a group that included business, city and school officials, formed a committee invested in making the idea a reality.

Paski joined but said its execution became difficult when members struggled to find the right location.

So she enlisted the help of a local real estate agent. They got in a car and drove around Grand Ledge hoping they’d spot something.

The Harrison Street home caught her eye immediately. It was centrally located and had everything Paski thought the teen center needed.

“I said, ‘Now that, that’s what I’m talking about.’ I wanted a place where it would seem like they were going over to a friend’s house. We wanted to create a sense of ownership, like, ‘This is your place, your place to do stuff.’”

YES Center became a nonprofit. It purchased the house through a land contract for around $90,000.

And volunteers got to work.

“We pretty much completely remodeled it,” Paski said. “We put a new roof on it, re-sided it, installed new carpeting.”

Fundraisers were hosted every year to fund the mortgage, which was paid off three years ago.

These days the focus is simple.

“Keep them busy so they stay out of trouble,” Paski said.

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Afternoons at the center always look different.

Teens show up, sign in just inside the door and greet Miller.

The rules are simple. They’re posted on a piece of paper hanging in the entryway. No violence, let your parents know you’re here, drugs and alcohol aren’t allowed, be respectful.

Once inside games are played, meals are made and, when the weather’s nice, everyone takes field trips - they walk to the ice cream stand, go to the gym or to City Hall for a basketball game.

Miller organizes team-building exercises and brings in guests who offer workshops. YES also offers leadership classes and in-school probation to local high school and middle school students who would otherwise face a 45-day suspension from classes.

But what’s most important is the socializing that happens naturally at the center.

“A lot of the kids who come here will make friends here,” Miller said. “Some are shy when they start coming, and, by the time they leave, they’re not anymore.”

Several of Jessie Roeseh’s siblings spent time at the center when they were her age. The 13-year-old lives just a few blocks away and is a regular every afternoon.

“Once in a while there are different faces,” she said. “I usually do my homework here, if I have any, but it’s fun because I can hang out with my friends.”

Never underestimate the power of a safe place to just be, Miller said.

He’s become invested in the center’s success, writing grant proposals that help support its $15,000 annual budget.

“The kids who come here every day, that’s 15 to 16 hours a week that I spend with some kids,” Miller said. “You get to know them.”

Paski still has a presence there too, even though she’s no longer on the board. She supervises quarterly pool tournaments and said the center is valuable.

“If it’s even kept one kid out of trouble yes, absolutely, it’s a success,” she said. “And there’s still a need for it.”

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Information from: Lansing State Journal, https://www.lansingstatejournal.com

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