By Travis Taylor
When you walk into Mission Waco’s Youth Center, it’s almost like walking into a high school student’s dream hangout spot. Foosball, a pool table and a big screen TV are just a few of the amenities the center offers. But the center isn’t just about having fun: It’s about education, too.
At Mission Waco’s Youth Center, Baylor students work with local high school and middle school students in an after-school program designed to teach kids skills they may not learn in the classroom.
San Antonio senior Jessica Jimenez, a social work major who is the youth director at the center, said the youth program offers classes in cooking, woodshop, music, theater, art and photography.
“We really try to give a wide range of things that our kids will be interested in that teach skills such as math and writing but not in a classroom-style setting,” Jimenez said.
The youth center, located in West Waco on North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue, usually has between 17 to 25 kids, but recently the center has seen more than 30 kids who show up after school, Jimenez said.
“Ever since we changed our program layout and really have focused on doing more non-traditional classes, and trying to get them to learn some skills that will help them at school but don’t have them sitting down, a lot of our kids have been bringing their friends and they’ve been really interested in it,” Jimenez said.
The youths attend a number of local schools, including Indian Springs Middle School, Tennyson Middle School, G. W. Carver Middle School and Waco High School.
Jimmy Dorrell, executive director of Mission Waco and lecturer in the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, said work with the area’s youth began when he moved into the neighborhood 33 years ago.
“Obviously, children living in poverty and those that are marginalized have a lot of issues,” Dorrell said. “So one of the first things that happened when we moved into the neighborhood, we began to have children’s clubs and then we built a basketball court at my house, and kids began to come over and play. And through the years, as Mission Waco developed, the teen program was really important.”
The youth program is split into two groups, one that serves the “normal at-risk kids,” or those who are in school that struggle with poverty and other issues; one that serves the “throwaway kids,” or youths who have dropped out of school and have had issues with the law, Dorrell said.
“We just know that if we don’t get in there and deal with them when they are struggling, then they’re going to be poor or end up in prison,” Dorrell said. “So the sooner we intervene, the more chances they have of making it and the better for society.”
Lansing, Mich., senior Erin Costello, a volunteer at the youth center, said the program is more about forming dependable relationships than simply providing an after-school service.
“It’s important to meet these kids and get to know them,” Costello said.
Costello said as a volunteer, she enjoys getting to know the kids, “even if it’s pretty chaotic.”
“It’s not ‘stuff these envelopes and send them out,’” Costello added.
Jimenez said the youth center is always looking for volunteers to help with enhancing the education of kids in the program.
“If there are any Baylor or MCC or TSTC students that are big on education or skilled in a particular area, we are always looking for more volunteers that come in specifically to tutor our kids,” she said.
Jimenez said college students are especially equipped to help with the non-traditional education that the program provides. Jimenez added that the youth center has two work-study students from Baylor and that the vast majority of volunteers are Baylor students.
“The number one thing we need are education students who want to do tutoring time,” Jimenez said. “Our dream is one tutor for two students.”
A.J. Parks Jr., a Waco High junior, has been involved with the youth program since he was in sixth grade.
“The counselors, they’re basically like brothers and sisters to me now,” Parks said. “I don’t see them as counselors; I see them as family.”
“This is my home away from home,” Parks said.
Students who are interested in volunteering at the Mission Waco Youth Center can find more information about the center and the youth program at www.missionwacoyouth.org.