Caroline Polgrabia is so close to seeing her goal of opening a youth hub realized, with just a few details to work out, that she wants local teens to begin thinking about what activities they would like at a drop-in centre in Virgil.
A committee of parents is partnering with Cornerstone Community Church on Niagara Stone Road in Virgil to provide a NOTL Youth Campus, and they’re almost ready to go with a space kids can call their own, and choose activities and programs they would like to see offered.
Polgrabia has been looking for a space that is central for quite a while, and was pointed in the direction of Cornerstone, which now operates all church services and programs out if its Hunter Road location.
Cornerstone is easy to access, she says, already has a Christian-based youth program two nights a week, and is making the job easier by providing many benefits that allow the group to focus on the kids, rather than administrative details.
For a start, they don’t have to apply to for non-profit status. They can operate under the umbrella of thechurch in that and other ways.
Jeff Martens, the pastor looking after public engagement at the church, has been a huge help, says Polgrabia. “One of the moms in the group had directed me to him. She had asked him about a drop-in centre for youth during COVID, and he was able to do it. We talked to him about our youth project, and we’ve been working with him since April, trying to figure out what it would look like. It is not going to be a Christian- based project. The church is very community-minded, and all about supporting youth. They’ve been unbelievably generous.”
The church is setting up a separate bank account for donations to the youth campus, and allowing its volunteers to use the church system of getting the safety checks necessary for those who work with vulnerable sectors, she says. “They’re helping us to make sure we have everything we need to provide a safe, secure space for kids.”They have also had help from Dorothy and Erwin Wiens and the Niagara Lions. Dorothy used to help organize dances for local kids at Virgil Public School, and that is one of the activities they are thinking of offering at the youth campus.
“We’re looking at all possibilities. We want a drop-in after school, and we’re going to ask the youth what they want. We’re looking at a lounge, and a space just for older teens they can design.”
There could be a time when parents of younger children want to offer programs for their age groups, she says, but for now the drop-in centre is for kids in Grade 7 to 12.
The committee members are thinking about groups such as Mindful Mondays, when they could invite someone from Pathstone to talk about mental health, a Tech Tuesday that could offer robotics or tech classes, Wednesdays could be a day to invite people from the Shaw Festival, Yellow Door Theatre Project or Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre to offer classes, and Thoughtful Thursdays could be focused on life skills for kids who want their Smart Serve, first aid, basic cooking lessons, simple car mechanics, or anything else they are interested in learning.
They are considering offering some medical and mental health services, but won’t rush into that, fearing they might scare kids away.
They are also planning a cafe, to offer a quiet space should some kids want to do homework, and possibly bringing in a couple of tutors to provide help.
“Once we started talking to people, there were all sorts of interesting ideas, but if the kids just want a place to hang out, with parental guidance, that’s okay. Youth are leading this.”
The goal for their first full semester, which will likely start in the new year, is for 200 unique kids’ visits.
“And once the kids start to see the space, they’ll be able to give us lots of ideas.”
Polgrabia grew up in town, attending Parliament Oak and Niagara District Secondary School. She was living in Toronto and working for the province when she decided to come home and raise her children in NOTL, envisioning them following her footsteps through the halls of the two schools she attended.
Instead, those schools closed, and she has spent several years trying to find a way to offer an education hub in town for high school students. She hasn’t given up — that is still a long-term goal, but in the short term she’s excited to be able to offer kids a safe environment to hang out in with their friends.
Polgrabia outlined her goals to the lord mayor and councillors in June, and says she knows she has their support. Once the youth campus is up and running, she will go to them to talk about transportation — another need that will have to be addressed.
To get the project underway, the committee is hosting an open house at Cornerstone’s Town Campus, 570 Niagara Stone Rd, Wednesday, Oct. 19, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Families are welcome, and election candidates are being invited to listen, says Polgrabia.