ENID, Okla. — On a board, in a back room of the Making a Difference counseling center, a years-old vision is laid out in blueprints and pictures, organized and thoughtfully considered pieces of an ambitious whole. But it's all only paper.

Money can make many things reality, though, and for the Enid nonprofit, $155,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds has helped do the trick.

It's time Enid had a youth center, Making a Difference Executive Director Justin Simmons said, and that's just what it will be named, Enid Youth Center.

"With a population of over 50,000 people, it's pretty phenomenal that we don't already have a youth center for our kids," Simmons said.

"Our main goal is to provide a positive environment to kids from all walks of life. We're looking at making this open to all populations," he said. "Whether your parents are millionaires, or they're on social welfare, there would be a way to benefit from this program."

The block grant isn't enough to fully realize the facility his organization has in mind, but it's good a start.

Making a Difference is buying 30,000 square feet of downtown real estate at 102 W. Randolph to transform into a multi-story hub for teens and pre-teens. The center will be a safe space to socialize and keep occupied alongside others around their age, after-school hours and in the summer, Simmons said.

"One thing that is becoming a deficit in our communities in America is social engagement," he said. "This is a place where kids will have access to some video games and stuff like that, but it's also an opportunity to have some unstructured socialization, which is being reduced in our society."

It's not just the traditional worries regarding bored, unsupervised youth getting up to no good that proves a need for the upcoming center, he said.

"You're not seeing them out there in the community committing crimes as often, but they are developing depression, anxiety and social withdrawal," Simmons said.

Screens can't replace people, but for kids middle school age and up, there aren't necessarily many alternatives for distraction in Enid, he said. Much of the entertainment they do have is solitary.

"There's some really worthwhile programs (in Enid) but almost all are athletic based," Ward 4 City Commissioner Jonathan Waddell said.

Waddell, who also serves on the CDBG board, said he's been looking to remedy the issue for at least two years.

When first made aware of the lack of programs, he began asking around as to why there was no youth center or some equivalent, he said, and "couldn't get a legitimate answer."

"There's a huge void in the community for programs that address kids who just don't have an interest in athletics," he said.

The CDBG board decided Making a Difference was well equipped to step in and fill the gap, Waddell said.

A lack of involvement and interaction is not only problematic for a particular subset of Enid's population, but also for the economic future of the city, he said.

"You look at a lot of the kids in the community that graduate high school, they don't have soft skills," Waddell said. "Most of them don't know what they're going to do next. Most of them are looking to leave the community because they don't know what's available here that will allow them to be an asset to Enid and to themselves."

Simmons said he wants Enid Youth Center to have a "smorgasbord" of activity available. Programming will be determined by whatever is in demand, whatever it is the children are interested in. Within reason, and preferably productive.

"Twenty years ago, you'd ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up and they'd say an NBA player," he said. "Now they want to be a Youtuber."

"I scoffed at that at first," Simmons said, but then he did a little research, changed his mind. "It's actually a lot more realistic than being an NBA player."

If they have an interest, a skillset or a dream, the youth center wants to provide the tools and support to pursue it.

"Kids start dropping out of school, at least in their heads, in middle school. Sixth, seventh, eighth grade, they decide whether they want to go to school or not," he said. "They may physically be there, but they may not be checked in. If we can give them a goal, a target for when they grow up, we believe they'll be more engaged."

For an estimated cost of $500,000, MaD will have the building purchased, and renovations made to the first floor and mezzanine, and lower level. Any plans for the third and fourth floors, and rough plans do exist, must come later, he said, the nearer future is the focus for now.

The first floor and mezzanine will house counseling services and parenting classes, and are planned to open by early December. The lower level should be useable in January 2020, and likely will be the new home for Making a Difference's after-school mentoring program, Vertical.

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Willetts is education and city reporter for the Enid News & Eagle.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for Mitchell? Send an email to mwilletts@enidnews.com.

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