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More than a decade ago, members of the Halifax United Methodist Church believed that God was calling them to provide local youth with a place to go after school - a place to play games, visit with friends, or simply just "hang out.” That vision became the Halifax Youth Center, which first opened in 1997 at a former residential home along Rise Street in Halifax Borough.

More than a decade later, the center has met its original goals and, according to church members, succeeded beyond what anyone connected with it ever could have anticipated. "The center's outreach transcends just our congregation. It's become an anchor in the community," said Patrick Castellani, chairperson of the church's RockSOLID campaign committee.

A much larger center was constructed earlier this year - on the same site as the original – and opened during the late summer. A formal dedication ceremony and open house will be held Sunday, Nov. 8, from noon to 3 p.m. Average daily attendance is 50 youth. Today, as in 1997, the center exists to "develop the character, confidence and community of middle school and high school students in a drug, alcohol and tobacco-free environment," according to the center's mission statement.

Open four days during the week, the Halifax Youth Center offers youth - not only from Halifax, but other communities as well - an opportunity to play games ranging from foosball to ping-pong to
Playstation  and other video-oriented games. Outdoor basketball and volleyball courts are available.
There also are rooms where youth can quietly do homework or study, or receive academic tutoring if
they seek it. Bible studies are offered to youth who are interested, but they are not mandatory.

Young people who attend the center are asked to sign a Code of Conduct promising proper behavior while they are on the property On Average, 50 young people are at the center daily. About 30 attend Thursday nights when the center is open. Adults from the church and the community volunteer their time to oversee the youth's activities – and to serve as a listening ear for a youth who wants to share about what's going on in his or her life. Non-judgmental atmosphere is stressed. One of the church's original stated goals for the center was to provide local youth with an "alternative" to hanging out on the streets, which could lead to criminal activity and substance abuse. Church members who are involved with the center believe it's accomplished those goals - and many more.

For many youth in the community, it has become a place where they can receive positive mentoring and encouragement from adults
"They know they speak to an adult (about things in their lives) without being judged," Castellani said.

"The kids know they are accepted here. I have had some of them tell me many things about what was happening in their lives," said Jim Snyder, Halifax Youth Center team facilitator.

The center has welcomed all of the youth from Halifax and surrounding communities, according to
Alan Bostdorf the church's associate for youth ministry. Special-needs youth have attended the center and have been warmly accepted and encouraged by the other youth, Bostdorf noted.
There always have been more than an adequate number of church members willing to volunteer at the center, according to the members interviewed for this article. Bostdorf also noted that since the number of youths attending the center continues to grow, the center always is looking for additional adult mentors.

Adults from other churches also have given of their time for the outreach, church members said.
"All we ask is that you are active at a church somewhere; it doesn't necessarily have to be (Halifax
UM)," Bostdorf said. In addition, volunteers must be at least 23 years old and must pass both the criminal and child abuse background checks.

"A world of difference" seen in youth. In its 12-year existence, the Halifax Youth Center has formed cooperative bonds with both the Halifax Area School District and Halifax Communities that Care, a local organization that also reaches out to young people. Its programs - and its results - also have earned it endorsements from the current Dauphin County Board of Commissioners, the Dauphin County Social Services for Children and Youth, state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola and state Rep. Sue Helm.

According to Bostdorf, the church has received confirmation from local law enforcement that the center has contributed to a lower rate of juvenile crime in the Halifax area. Perhaps most importantly, church members said they have seen the outreach make a noticeable difference in the lives of the youth who've been there on a regular basis.

"After a while, you see a world of difference in them. You see it in even the smallest things, like how they talk to you," said Terry Bowman, an adult mentor.

The previous center was demolished earlier this year. The new building, which has approximately three times more square footage, opened Aug. 31. The larger facility also is playing host to a new youth outreach organized by Halifax UM Church - Rock SOLID, which holds Sunday night meetings from 6 to 8 p.m. that, as with the youth center, are open to all young people from all communities, not just the Halifax area. The Rock SOLID program already is drawing youth from neighboring school districts, and church members said. They are optimistic about its long-term growth. The program includes positive activities that church members said are designed to build character, confidence and community, incorporating teaching, music and other activities.

Church membership or involvement is not mandatory for youth who want to attend the programs - just as it is not mandatory for youth who want to attend the center, according to Halifax UM church members.

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