Bridging a gap: New teen center fills void in community

Susan Frick Carlman
scarlman@stmedianetwork.com | @scarlman
July 16 noon

When plans were being made for a downtown Naperville hangout just for teens, Yasha Mostofi liked having the chance to step inside on the ground floor.

Founders of the new center, which would be called NaperBridge, first came together last year to toss out ideas for interest-based groups who would help shape the organization.

“We sat at Lou Malnati’s and talked,” said Mostofi, who will be a senior at Naperville North High School in the fall.

Pizza is a well-established uniting force, particularly among teens — but so is growing up in Naperville. NaperBridge, which since late 2013 has provided young residents with a place to call their own, offers common ground for navigating the process. Those early focus-group discussions led to subgroups within the organization that are geared toward teens’ specific interests and talents — music, art, IT or whatever else draws them.

“These are all things that the students want to do. We don’t invent these things ourselves,” said Kara Mason, the center’s executive director.

The ownership piece holds great appeal for those involved with NaperBridge.

“We’re pretty unique in being a teen center,” said Jacob Eifler, also an incoming North senior.

Eifler, Mostofi and more than a dozen other students from North, Naperville Central, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley high schools comprise the newly-expanded student advisory board.

“This one is teen-run,” agreed Jonathan Kim, the new board’s president.

The location is pretty prime, too. Tucked into a cozy space accessed by a narrow alley that leads west from Washington Street just north of Jackson Avenue, the center hosts drop-in hours beginning at 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

“Because of the vibe that downtown Naperville has, people want to be here,” Mostofi said.

Mason sees the constituency of the center as one of its most valuable assets.

“I think that NaperBridge really has the opportunity to use the experiences that Naperville teens have growing up here, and kind of the culture that they’re exposed to,” said Mason, a North Central College graduate, who also answers to a five-member adult board of directors. “It’s completely student-run and student-driven, so it’s a gift to the community. … We just help them utilize this resource as best they can.”

They’ve already utilized the inspiration they pull from one another to host an array of successful events, from a neon dance for middle school students held at The Barn on Hillside Road to a rap night at the newly opened center that attracted an overflow crowd.

Regularly scheduled variety nights at the center give teens a place to share their talents on a small stage before a receptive audience, and new things will be rolling out in the coming weeks, including a DJ-focused “battle of the bass” on July 26 at The Barn; some movie nights, possibly in Central Park; and a programming class that will focus on whatever digital skills are of most interest to the participants.

The early organizers of the center are pleased with how well it has taken off.

“Some kids actually come to NaperBridge because they feel safer there,” Kim said. “It’s a safe haven.”

Mason thinks it helps that the center is exclusively theirs.

“It’s a safe, welcoming space that they always have to go to after school and on weekends,” she said. “Before NaperBridge, the teens of Naperville didn’t really have something like that.”

With a security framework in place that calls for two on-site, carefully screened adult supervisors during operating hours, and a code of conduct participants must sign when they register at the center, Mason said, it addresses a real need for teens who don’t have a lot of places to go and just be with their peers.

“That has been the most meaningful resource that NaperBridge has been able to provide,” she said. “It’s a void in the community that NaperBridge is filling.”

Mostofi gets that. He said it was impressive, for example, how the standing-room-only rap event helped the young performers build their stage confidence.

“I like the fact that it’s a very tangible community benefit,” he said. “I love the fact people have a chance to try new experiences, go out of their comfort zone.”

Eifler has picked up on that virtue as well.

“I like that kids can meet people from other schools,” he said. “It makes your little sphere of influence a little bigger.”

For more information, visit www.naperbridge.org.

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