A Braintree youth center was already a happening place, full of noise and energy. Then they let the sixth-graders in.
B RAINTREE - The scene is hopping at the Braintree Community Youth Center. Girls in flip-flops toss themselves on couches, tease boys, and text on glittery cellphones decorated with heart-shaped stickers. Boys hide from girls and play pool, air hockey, video games, and ping-pong. One raises a racquet mid-swing and yells “No parents!’’
The youth center is becoming known as the most “wicked fun’’ spot in town - that is if you happen to be a middle school student in Braintree. An influx of youngsters, particularly sixth-graders, a younger set allowed entry as of last fall, has brought a new energy to the nonprofit facility, transforming it into a high-decibel tween hangout.
“Everybody in Braintree pretty much knows about this place and likes to come here,’’ says Siobhan Quilty, 12, waving a hand toward the crowd of nearly 60 youngsters. Her friend, Maura Hodge, also 12, nods. “We usually just like to talk.’’ The girls hear “Our Song’’ by Taylor Swift and break into identical dance moves.
A lively surge of popularity has arrived for the town’s youth center, a project conceived by members of the Braintree Rotary Club more than 15 years ago as a way to keep suburban youths occupied, supervised, and away from drugs and alcohol. In 2007, with $30,000 in donations, the center opened on Pond Street at a former elementary school, filling a sprawling second-floor room with games, music, and dozens of donated couches.
“I think we fill a void,’’ says cofounder Bill Tennant. “We fill that hole for kids that don’t have a place to go hang out.’’
The center is open at 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, he says, offering town youths in grades 6 through 12 somewhere to eat pizza, play games, and make noise. It is open until 9 p.m. both nights for all, and, for high school students, an extra two hours on Saturdays, until 11 p.m. Annual membership is $10 per young person; guests pay $1 at the door.
The need for a youth hangout is a recurring theme in many towns - although not all have landed on a model that works.
In Rockland, a volunteer effort, similar to Braintree’s model, keeps a successful nonprofit youth center running on Friday and Saturday nights, serving students in grades 6 through 12. In Hingham, the town’s recreation department holds at least a half-dozen supervised Friday night dances during the school year for students in grades 6 through 8. In Weymouth, the city’s Youth and Family Services provides a teen center that is open on weekday afternoons and on Friday until 9 p.m.
“We give them a place to have fun and keep them out of trouble,’’ says Tennant about the Braintree center.
It’s a “real tweenie scene,’’ says volunteer Kyra Freedman, 17, a senior at Fontbonne Academy in Milton. She says the center meets a desperate need, the one felt by town youths with “nowhere to go in Braintree.’’
“Look at them,’’ she says of the 12-year-old dancers. “This is what happens when a good song comes on. They all stop what they’re doing and start to dance. It’s like a musical in here.’’ Girls making bracelets from Starburst wrappers sing along.
“I’m the one who tells people about it,’’ says Jacob Botsolis, 11, a South Middle School student. Jacob coordinated the meet-up of nine friends tonight, all dropped off by parents.
“People started talking about it at school as a place to hang out. Now I’m here,’’ says Jacob’s brother, Luke, 12.
So what’s the buzz about the center?
“It has 19 couches - I counted the other day. And there’s the magical sinking couch over there,’’ says Paulie Donahoe, 11, with a thick Boston accent.
“People should definitely come. There’s dancing and the magical couch and eating pizza,’’ says Jacob.
“Fun and video games,’’ says Alex Bouley, 12, stylish and distinctive in a fedora.
Over on a distant couch, Evan Abreu, 14, a freshman at Braintree High School, is hanging out with friends, reciting seemingly random lines from the Nickelodeon cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.’’ Abreu, dressed in a bright orange T-shirt with a giant Reese’s on it, asks with mock seriousness to be described as “devilishly handsome.’’
“No doubt it’s gotten busier ever since they allowed sixth-graders. It is much louder now,’’ says Abreu with an air of contemplation. “I liked it better when there weren’t any sixth-graders. Before, there was a system. You knew if you lost at a video game, you’d have to give up the controller. Sixth-graders just keep playing. It’s the same thing with the food line. Some of them’ll just walk right in front. They don’t care, they have no clue.’’
“We’ve been getting a lot more attendance in the last six months. I’ve seen some nights with 70 people,’’ says volunteer Domenic Venezia, a Braintree resident for 38 years. As he speaks, a group of middle school students break into disjointed but spirited Irish dance to the Dropkick Murphys song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.’’
“This is the way they are, but it’s OK,’’ Venezia says. “Sometimes they get a little rowdy. I’ll go over and say, ‘OK, that’s it.’ They are not performing; this is normal for them. All you have to do is just sit here and you’ll see a show.’’
Over by the snack bar, volunteers Gail and Bob Fraser, Braintree seniors who live across the street, are cleaning up. Sometimes the noise level motivates Bob to stay downstairs by the sign-in roster, but Gail says 40 years as a schoolteacher granted her noise immunity. The couple’s granddaughters, Kristina, 11, and Breyanna, 13, dart about the room.
“Thanks, guys! Time to wrap up!’’ shouts volunteer Andrew Curtis, father of Spencer, 12, currently playing video games. Curtis says he became involved last year, after attending a fund-raising auction held to raise money to keep the place running. He says the center offers an invaluable resource and deserves support. “It’s a great facility,’’ he says.
It’s night’s end, and Tennant is locking up. The youth center has evolved, he says, and volunteers, himself included, have learned to spot trouble well in advance and enforce strict policies against drugs, alcohol, bullying, and inappropriate language.
Now the center has hit its stride. And Tennant spends weekend nights watching over the town’s young people with a stoic calm, a task completed after a full week of work as an auto mechanic. His own children are grown, and the Braintree native has moved to Brockton.
Asked why he remains committed to the center, in Braintree, he shrugs and says: “I’m from here. And I’m a Rotarian. This is what we do. We give back.’’
Meg Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.