The Kenai Teen Center wasn’t always regarded as the best place for teens to hang out. It took Tony Travers the better part of two years to change that reputation.
“When I first came here, my mom didn’t want me coming here because she thought all the druggies came here,” Jake Kirsch, 16, of Kenai said of his first visits to the teen center about three years ago. “All the bad kids came here.”
“That’s what this place was when I first got here,” he said.
Some of Kirsch’s peers had similar perceptions, and many parents, including Kirsch’s mother, did not want their children going there, because of their own memories or experiences at the 30-year-old facility.
But in the past few years, the teen center’s reputation has changed for the better.
“The feel of it got good,” 16-year-old Austen Middick said. “All the bad, so to say, left.”
Natasha Ala, who has been working as the Boys and Girls Club executive director for less than a year, said she has only heard rumors of the building’s history, and she said she doesn’t even know for sure what used to happen there.
But that’s irrelevant anyway; she said the role of the Boys and Girls Club, which has been managing the facility for over five years, is to make sure the teen center is a safe place for children — and they do that through Travers.
When Travers signed on 4 1/2 years ago as Teen and Recreation Center supervisor, the teen center was attracting on average fewer than 10 teenagers a day, and its past still plagued the facility, he said.
“If you grew up in Kenai, you’d know the teen center was terrible,” he said. “When I started here my main goal was to change its reputation.”
That took the 33-year-old Kenai resident more than two years. He said its image had been burned into the community.
“Anywhere where we would try to make the teen center known, it was always hard,” he said. “They had this stereotype of the teen center.”
Travers’ first action to improve the teen center’s image was to change its rules.
He is strict with his rules, he said. And the teens know it.
“Sometimes he will bring down the hammer if someone’s doing something bad,” 16-year-old Robert Prince, of Kenai, said.
Under Travers’ supervision, any cussing, littering, fighting, handholding or any boyfriend-girlfriend signs of affection, spitting on the floor, smoking, drugs or drug deals, knives, vandalism, lighters, or viewing any inappropriate content on the computers are all not allowed.
But, he believes in second chances. A first-time offender will spend five minutes outside or downstairs for minor infractions.
Travers said he sits each new teen down their first day to explain his rules.
“Some give me a little attitude,” he said, “but, for the most part, they’re like, ‘OK. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Others, when he was starting out, didn’t like the new teen center, so they left, he said. They were probably part of the building’s troubled past, anyway, he said.
However, even after Travers cleaned up the teen center, he didn’t see a spike in its use until nearly year four of his tenure there.
About a year ago the state awarded the teen center an $80,000 grant, and it overhauled the fading facility, funding new pool and ping pong tables, new TVs, new computers, a 3D movie theater, numerous video game consoles, new snack bar and a new paint job. They still have plans for the rest of the money.
“By (that) time, we had sifted through the bad things,” he said. “We got it out of here, and the reputation was starting to come along.”
But the Teen Center still charged a $75 membership fee, and that, Ala said, was probably preventing many teens from using the facility.
So, less than a year ago, the city started covering that fee, and now the Teen Center’s numbers have spiked.
“Yesterday was 47 kids,” he said, “and they day before was 40. It’s just like that now.”
And on Fridays, an additional 50 to 57 teens take a bus in from Nikiski.
Come March, Travers will have been working at the Teen Center for five years. He describes his supervisor position as a “dream job” — one that he will work until retirement, he hopes — but turning around the center was not easy, he said.
“You know, four and a half years is not a lot,” he said about his time there, “but I believe it is when you’re trying to change things … because, man, it was hard.”
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.