FAIRMONT - When staff from Martin County Youth for Christ started asking high-schoolers last year about what things they would like to see at The Lighthouse, plans started forming for a fun coffee-house setting, with food and drink, plus games to keep kids entertained.
The finished product is better than anyone imagined. The youth center re-opened this week after closing in August for renovations.
When kids walked through the door of the re-invented Lighthouse, they were undoubtedly impressed with the modern decor and high-tech look. For anyone who didn't see the space before, here's an analogy: Imagine a pair of worn-out jeans, so worn out that they aren't even comfortable anymore, and that will give you a feel for The Lighthouse, pre-makeover.
Matthew Anderson plays pool at The Lighthouse in Fairmont this week, as other kids play video games, purchase snacks from the canteen and visit with their friends.
The change is dramatic, to say the least.
"One kid came in and said, 'I thought I was in the wrong building,'" said Youth for Christ employee Sam Kautzmann.
The improvements would not have been possible without generous donations of money, time and particularly skills. Jeff Greischar, Norm Langford, Keith Anderson, Kent Jensen, "Captain" Bob Steger and Dave Oothoudt were among those credited for lending a helping hand with the project.
"They put in so much work," Kautzmann said. "... If it had been just us, we would have maybe had new paint."
The Lighthouse is open to students in grades 5-9 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and high-schoolers on Tuesdays. Both age groups turned out in record numbers this week.
"I've seen quite a few who came last year, a few who tried to sneak in when they were in fourth grade, and some new kids as well," Kautzmann said.
The youth worker seemed at ease in the new environment, despite the flurry of activity around him. Pop hits played over the sound system, as kids played pool, air hockey and table tennis. Boys gathered around two TVs in one corner of the room playing a football game, while girls danced in sync to a video game set up in the opposite corner. At the canteen, students filled up on soda, lining up along the bar stools to sit and hang out with each other and the staff.
"It's kind of like a second home," said Kalee Crout.
At 14, she seemed much older than the elementary kids buzzing about the place. Crout has been coming to The Lighthouse for a few years now.
"At first it was just a cool place to hang out for kids," she said. "Then I started getting into church."
The same was true for Thomas Willett, also 14.
"The Lighthouse has been a big part of my life," he said. "This is where I first accepted Christ into my life."
It's somewhere they can go and hang out with friends just for fun, or turn to one of the adult leaders if they need some counsel.
"There's always someone you can talk to," Crout said.
And it's safe.
The rules are pretty basic, though the list did get longer with the new furniture and decor, in order to keep the Lighthouse looking good.
Students are supposed to sign in when they walk through the door and turn over their skateboards if they have them. They have to listen to staff, say please and thank you, throw away trash, and "do keep Victoria's secret." Food and drinks are to stay in the designated areas, and games can only be used after turning in a deposit, like shoes, phones or jewelry. Running, hurdling the couches, and swearing - there is a 25-cent fee that must go into a swear jar if someone forgets - are not allowed.
"It's a youth center. It is made to be used," acknowledged Mike Johnson, executive director of Youth for Christ. "Our goal is to educate kids quickly on how the Lighthouse runs, so everybody can enjoy the place and it stays nice."
There are still a few improvements to be made before the project is 100 percent complete, like electrical work to tie all the TVs together, so they can all show the same DVD or PowerPoint presentation.
"We're working on fund-raising for computers," said Johnson, showing the counter space designed for three computer stations for entertainment and educational purposes. Youth for Christ wants to set up a tutoring program with retired teachers, obviously during the quieter times at The Lighthouse.
The organization also plans to offer the facility for rentals.
"We want to let our church partners use it for free," Johnson said. "The first goal of Youth for Christ is to be a blessing to the church."