The Elk Grove Teen Center is getting more popular, and fewer students spending time there are impoverished. Because of its success, though, the center’s future may be in jeopardy.
A $500,000 federal community development block grant paid for the refurbishment of the teen center’s building in 2006. However, the grant came with the stipulation that 51 percent of those receiving support from whatever organization adopted the property must be from low-income families, which are becoming increasingly rare in Elk Grove.
If less than 51 percent of people attending the center come from low-income families, the city of Elk Grove will force it to vacate the property, executive director Russ Croco said. Another group that can primarily serve the impoverished will move in, or the property will remain empty unless Elk Grove repays the $500,000 grant.
The teen center sends names of its 400 or so members to the Elk Grove Unified School District, which cross-checks them with the names of students signed up for free or reduced-price lunch programs. Once a year, the district sends the total percentage to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to prove the center is meeting its quota.
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At the end of March, 53 percent of students involved with the center qualified for free or reduced lunch, meaning they had an annual household income equivalent to $44,863 or less for a family of four. The center turned a new batch of data over to the district June 30 and expects to hear whether it still is in compliance by August, Croco said.
“We have a pretty good idea of what our student body (in poverty) is, and that’s 51.7 percent,” Croco said. “But then there’s about 30 or so that we don’t really know about.”
The percentage is skewed by students who come from outside the district, including those who are home-schooled and attend certain charter schools, since they count as teen center members but are ineligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches in Elk Grove. Still, Croco said he will not turn away any student who comes to the center’s doors.
“Our whole job is to give hope to kids who don’t have hope in their futures, to show them that they’re not stuck where they are,” he said.
Incoming Elk Grove High School ninth-graders Tristan Rousselle and Van Fettig, both 13, will spend most of their summer at the center. They often arrive there as their parents are going into work, and don’t leave until the center closes at 6 p.m.
“We would usually go hang out with our friends, and then we’d go to their houses, and then go to a park and likely get into trouble,” Rousselle said. “Or we would go to McDonald’s and get kicked out or something. ... We’re nice, but we like to mess around.”
Greg Boone, 18, is one of the oldest teens to hang out at the center. He comes in part for free meals – including Pizza Bell on Monday, Chick-fil-A on Tuesday, pancakes on Wednesday, Taco Bell on Thursday and Italian salads on Friday.
A recent Elk Grove High graduate, Boone used the center’s computer room to print out a job application for a nearby Walmart. The center’s positive vibe makes him feel comfortable, he said, and he can keep an eye on his younger siblings.
“When I come here, it’s actually a place where I can sometimes just think and figure out some things. Other people are trying to be positive, you know, push themselves to do something, too,” Boone said. “We all just link up and have fun, and after it’s closed we go home and do our own thing.”
The center’s board of directors is looking for a new building that would be free from the federal grant’s restrictions, but would like to keep the existing building as well, since all but $1 in rent is covered by Elk Grove.
The nonprofit center’s programs include biweekly Friday night hangouts, a singing competition modeled after “American Idol” and an annual golf tournament. Other services, such as free weekly breakfasts and tutoring by older students, are geared more toward disadvantaged teens, though they are open to all.
Corporate sponsors, including Taco Bell, Pepsi and the Kelly Foundation, fund 30 percent of the center’s operating costs. Another 20 percent comes from Elk Grove, and the remaining 50 percent comes from fundraising and community donations.