Saline's 5th Corner
A teen center extends its reach.
by Sheila Beachum Bilby
Published in July, 2019
Peter Rufener was just describing the demographic "sweet spot" for Saline's 5th Corner when a sudden whoosh of high-energy laughter and voices one floor below pierced the calm.
"And they're here," chuckles Rufener, who directs the teen center on Willis Rd. It's shortly after three in the afternoon on a school day, and a People's Express bus has dropped off a handful of Saline Middle School students who will hang out until six doing homework, playing Minecraft, watching TV, or just shooting the breeze with the two adult mentors on duty.
"We try to help them see their uniqueness, their abilities, their leadership, their voice," Rufener says of the center, which serves up to ninety young people a month during the school year. "We give them opportunities for job training, give them opportunities for leadership development, give them opportunities to say, 'Hey, we should do this around here.'"
The idea for a Saline teen hangout had popped up intermittently over the years but gained traction in 2007 when Rufener moved to town and participated in the Saline Leadership Institute, dedicated to training local leaders. As pastor of the Saline Community Church, which had been holding Sunday services at different sites, Rufener was spearheading a search for a permanent church home and came across the Willis Rd. building, which used to house a Baptist church.
"So we purchased this building and basically gutted it," he says, "with the idea that it would be used by the teen center and then [the church] would use it on the weekends."
The 5th Corner's name, inherited from teen center talks twenty years ago, is a tip of the hat to the four corners half a mile north that are the Saline's geographical and cultural heart. "The concept was that the teens would meet at the fifth corner," Rufener says. The nonprofit has an annual budget of $25,000 to $35,000, raised from donors, events, and local foundations.
Today, two seventh-grade boys sit side by side,
wisecracking and playing Minecraft in the computer room downstairs. A thirteen-year-old girl, attached by earplugs to her phone, says she's been dropping by for two years to do her homework on the computers.
"Our biggest goal is just to make sure they feel safe and secure and to come here and be themselves," says Diana Micu, one of the center's three staff mentors.
Lately, the center has put a new emphasis on job training and leadership development. Supported by grants from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation Youth Council, up to a dozen students at a time complete training on work ethics, how to interview and build a resume, and personal finance, then put in ten hours job shadowing at one of eight local businesses. After a final session to talk about their experiences, each receives a $90 stipend.
Each school year, the 5th Corner also hosts thirty-two middle school students for a six-month leadership development program, including team building, social media navigation, and community service.
Diane Biondi Mukkala, a Saline Leadership Institute instructor and 5th Corner board member who helped design the program, marvels at the power of peer connections. She recalls three ninth-grade girls in the leadership program this year who took the initiative to help several younger middle-school girls feel more in sync with the group.
The teen center, she says, "provides an opportunity for teenagers--especially middle-schoolers who are kind of 'outside the box'--a place to learn and grow and have fun and build relationships."
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