Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #202. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print, May 5, 2024

On May 14, The Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The occasion will highlight the astonishing fact that our Boys & Girls Clubs, with its 18 locations, is in the top 100 of the more than 1,300 organizations across the country for average daily participation (disclosure: My wife is on the board of directors). The St. Cloud area is a great place to be a young person!

An event on Apr. 23 marked a major advance in “empowering all youth to reach their full potential” – the formal opening of the Best Buy Teen Tech Center at the Southside Boys & Girls Club.

In her introductory words, Boys & Girls Clubs President and CEO Mary Swingle placed the Teen Tech Center in the half-century’s history and called it “transformational.” It serves as “a beacon of hope, guidance and opportunity” in “a world where our youth confront countless challenges and uncertainties.” It is “a place where young people can escape negative influences and find mentors who care about their academic success and personal growth.” It “levels the playing field and ensures equal access to digital tools and education for all youth.”

Corie Barry, Best Buy’s CEO, began her remarks by noting that she grew up in nearby Cambridge and is an alumna of the College of St. Benedict – in other words, this was a homecoming for her. She then explained how closely aligned the Boys & Girls Club's mission and that of Best Buy are: “to empower all youth to reach their full potential” and “to enrich lives through technology.”

The company has, to date, established 11 Teen Tech Centers in Minnesota, and more than 50 around the country. The aim is to create “a safe space for teens to learn unabashedly, not nervously, not worrying about what someone is going to think about them.” Access is “imperative.”

Technology, yes. But the key: human mentorship, caring about kids – “someone to help unlock what might be possible,” creating “a pipeline for young people to stay here, because we need vibrant, fresh thinking in all our communities.” Barry noted that 95 percent of Teen Tech Center participants continue their education after high school.

Shaelynn Waseka, coordinator of the Best Buy Teen Technology Center, explained to the attendees how the center operates.

The model is provided by the Clubhouse Network, a global community of which the Southside Club is a member, comprised of 148 Clubhouses in 20 countries, serving 25,000 youth per year. The Network’s approach is based on four principles: learn by design; follow your interests; build a community; foster respect and trust. These latter two, which had also been emphasized by Barry, are as important as the first two – indeed, they are the precondition for effective learning and following interests.

The options for interest are wide-ranging: the center has a recording studio, more than 15 computers equipped with top production applications, a DJ station, robotics and coding, digital arts, 3D printing, embroidery, T-Shirt and heat press, digital cutting machine, photography and videography. “Some participants have found hidden talents within themselves,” Waseka reported, “and some capitalized on what they already knew.”

“In just four months as coordinator,” Waseka said, “I have witnessed a profound transformation in these young individuals – their newfound comfort with each other, a sense of individual empowerment, and a willingness to explore new horizons and embrace their remarkable abilities to excel in technology.”

When I toured the Teen Tech Center, I saw the equipment that Best Buy has provided. As expected, it’s as up-to-date as you can imagine, and I’m sure that whenever Best Buy discerns what’s “coming next,” the center will be further equipped. But that’s not the main point. As Waseka insisted, she wants us to “see a space where these teens are comfortable being who they are. I want you to see a space where these teens come in every day and have a mentor or a fellow teen to speak to. It is a place of opportunity and growth.”

In her opening remarks, Swingle had cataloged the more than one hundred collaborators present in the room: parents, educators, community members, business leaders, lawmakers. Barry had noted that Best Buy has learned how crucial partnerships are in the success of the Teen Tech Centers, and she saluted the St. Cloud area for exhibiting collaboration and living in a way that shows what can happen if we all come together.

For fifty years, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota has instilled a sense of competence, usefulness, belonging, and influence in our young people. The Best Buy Teen Tech Center is now an integral part of the story. Happy Golden Anniversary!