At a time when mental health is at a critical point for youth, an after-school program in downtown Langley continues to offer a haven for middle and high school kids.
The vital program, however, is facing funding challenges.
Since its 1989 opening in the basement of the Langley United Methodist Church, the HUB has provided a safe space for generations of Whidbey teens and pre-teens to hang out, with some coming as far away as Oak Harbor.
At the HUB, kids can work on an art project, play a table top game or jam out on an instrument, all while being supervised by a supportive adult mentor. An on-site chef prepares a hot meal every day the HUB is open, which is 2-5:30 p.m. on most days when school is in session and 1-5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, when the South Whidbey School District has an early release.
“The whole time that we’re open, the kitchen is open,” Executive Director Shelly Benton said. “Somebody could show up at 5:25 and be hungry, and we’ll make sure that they have something to walk out the door with.”
Benton first became acquainted with the HUB in 2004, when her own children participated in the program.
“It was really helpful to me as a mom,” she said.
The after-school drop-in program is entirely free of charge for the youth who choose to participate. The nonprofit, which is not associated with the church it borrows space from, relies on donations from the community to continue operating. The organization recently experienced a budget shortfall, which caused the HUB to close its doors temporarily for a week.
The day that happened, Benton and a student who regularly comes to the HUB approached Island County commissioners about the issue and the importance of keeping the after-school program running. The organization is currently working with the county to secure some funds through the Human Services department, although Benton said the HUB is still short for June and the summer program, which operates three afternoons out of the week.
Benton recently took over as executive director after six years of being the HUB’s program manager. She explained that the HUB operates on a relatively slim budget of $92,000 annually.
“Under my leadership, I’d like to more than double that,” she said. “I believe that we need sustainable wages for employees and that our program needs to expand, not contract.”
There are only a few times of year when the HUB isn’t open, which includes one week at the end of the school year, the duration of the Whidbey Island Fair and the first week of winter break.
“The week of Christmas, everybody’s busy,” Benton said. “It can be a letdown and a difficult time of the year between the holidays, so I will open at least for a couple of days there.”
Though some kids work on their homework at the HUB, many show up for the recreational activities. Benton explained that the HUB is often a place for kids to relieve stress and blow off some steam because there are no expectations like there are at home or school.
Harolynne Bobis, a Langley council member and member of the organization’s board, pointed out that the HUB helps keep youth busy when they might otherwise be doing something disorderly.
“They find that the after school hours are the most dangerous for kids to get into trouble,” she said. “Parents are still working, they’re loose, and you know, they’re bored, ‘let’s go do something interesting.’”
She added that some attendees might not have the best home life, or parents who have the wherewithal to buy them toys or provide the things they’re interested in doing.
The program has attracted a number of youth who identify as LGBTQ+ or have special needs.
“I think that that’s really a testament to how comfortable it is to be here, that kids of all different walks of life are getting along together in the same room,” Benton said.
Most days Benton can be found at the HUB. She looks out for the kids, whether they need help communicating with a parent or improving their resume.
“I’ve helped kids get their food handler’s permit. We’re going to be doing babysitting classes soon and a CPR class, first aid,” she said. “Younger kids are wanting to be employed.”
With the dismal results of the county’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey, Benton has become increasingly concerned about the state of kids’ mental health. While the statistics were terrifying, Benton said, she believes that those particular feelings can be countered just by having a space where people can have hope and feel connected, which is the antidote to the loneliness kids are facing right now.
“Kids need to feel like they have a place where they can be themselves and where people appreciate them. And so I think it’s important because when kids walk through the door, they’re acknowledged and we engage with them so that they feel like they’re part of a community,” she said. “And I think that with the current climate that youth are facing in terms of their social, emotional needs, that that is something that we all need more of, that opportunity to have a healthy place to socialize.”
Aidan Dona, a 2019 alum of South Whidbey High School, fondly remembers going to the HUB and playing Magic: The Gathering – a card game – with his friends. He attended the after-school program from sixth to twelfth grade.
“It was probably one of the best parts of my life at the time, was just having that place to hang out,” he said.
Dona participated in a range of activities, from learning how to play an instrument to learning how to play pool. Over the years the HUB has given a space to kids in need, he said, including homeless youth.
“It’s a really great place and it needs to stay open, because it benefits so many,” he said.