Martins Ferry Youth Center blossoming

70 children now attending, receiving food

T-L Photos/SHELLEY HANSON ABOVE: MARTINS FERRY resident Maurice Barnett, 11, poses with Grace Youth Center volunteers, from left, Betsy Polivka and Janie Davies and Grace Church pastor, the Rev. William Webster.

MARTINS FERRY — A new youth center in Martins Ferry has blossomed into a means of feeding hungry children, and there are plans to help clothe them for the upcoming school year as well.

The Rev. William Webster, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church, said the center, located adjacent to the church on Hanover Street, opened about a month ago. In the beginning, only a handful of local school-aged children were arriving, but now about 70 children are coming to play games, hangout, eat snacks and be served dinner daily.

“We thought really there was nothing available for kids in the community. Part of it was there are a large number of students on free or reduced lunch at school. During the summer, those meals are not available to the children in the community,” Webster said.

With this realization in mind, a group of church members decided to open the center.

“It’s a way to bring kids together. It’s a safe place for kids in the community. … We give snacks throughout the day, and at 4:30 or 5 p.m. we prepare meals for the kids who are there. Sometimes we make pizza or hot dogs. It varies with donations from the church and the community,” he said.

Webster said word about the center has spread beyond Martins Ferry.

“We have kids who come from as far as Shadyside and Bellaire and Warwood — some on bicycles,” Webster said. “We open at 2 p.m., and most times there are kids waiting to get in at 1:30 p.m.”

Webster said the youth come to have fun and also to eat. Some arrive with their parents, but a parent is not required. The center is supervised by three volunteers who have been screened and given background checks, Webster said. They are: Betsy Polivka, Becca Holmes, Janie Davies and Brett Orban.

The center closes nightly at 8 p.m.

“We have older kids who play with younger kids. We have crafts for kids and games they can play. Some have built puzzles and they have never done that before. … We have board games and cards. It’s pretty cool,” Webster said.

Webster said one of the church’s parishioners, John Davies, recently purchased the former Daily Bread Center building across Fifth Street from the city building. He is working to bring it up to code, as it was condemned under a previous owner by the city for code violations. Webster said a new roof is being installed and other work is occurring inside. Webster said Davies plans to allow the youth center to move into a portion of the building, while one of the first floor apartments is going to be turned into a free clothing store of sorts. This is where children will be allowed to get clothes before school begins next month, he said.

The entire operation will be dubbed the Grace Church Community Center.

“It’s just taken off, and now we’re trying to catch up,” he said. “It’s like an old drop-in center. Some come for 15 minutes or the whole time. We make sure it stays calm and easy. We’ve had no problems at all. Everyone is welcome and accepted.”

One of the rules the center has is that the children must wear shirts; for example, boys who have been at the swimming pool sometimes come directly from the pool. If they do not have a shirt to put on, one is given to them.

Davies noted it was 30 years ago when he first discussed opening a community center with Webster. However, it wasn’t until now that he had the time, means and available building to get it started.

Davies said he attended a youth center as a child in Martins Ferry years ago. It was located in a building where a car wash sits now on Hanover Street.

“It had an impact on myself,” Davies said.

Davies said once the old Daily Bread building is completely renovated, it will either be handed over to Grace Church or willed to it in the future. Davies said he also recently purchased the former Mackey Community Center building on Mackey Avenue. The church is thinking of ideas on how to use that building as well, he said.

Police Chief John McFarland said he is glad the church has opened a youth center. He said the youth of Martins Ferry are generally good kids. Periodically a youth might break something, but overall they do not get into much trouble.

“I’m glad they have that for them,” McFarland said.

Martins Ferry residents Aaron Anderson, 17, and Maurice Barnett, 11, were among the handful of teens playing pool at the center Tuesday. Both said they enjoyed coming to the center.

“I like the pool table, foose ball and air hockey,” Barnett said.

“I like everything he just said,” Anderson added.

For more information, call the church at 740-633-2699.