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61st Central center serves and served by teenagers

The teenagers raise their own funds, plan and carry out their projects, and hire and fire staff with minimal guidance and adult influence.

The 61st Central Teen Center (61C), housed in the Boys &Girls Club at 7790 61st St. N, is the new kid on the block.

A nonprofit organization, 61C Teen Center has just received a $660,000 grant from the Eckerd Family Foundation to expand its concept to other sites within Pinellas County.

More than two years ago, the first center opened modestly, with space inside the Boys and Girls Club building in Pinellas Park for computers, comfortable couches, foosball, soft drink machines and meetings.

"What spotlights the Teen Center as a legacy for our generation is that it was not just created for teens; it was created by teens," said the center's out-going public relations chairman, Matthew Morton, 18.

The 61C center, which serves more than 350 teenagers from throughout the county, organizes character-molding programs, workshops and games.

The teenagers recruit their own personnel by structuring and interviewing applicants for jobs in their centers.

The teenagers have so far raised $1-million, mostly from grants but also from car washes and a teen-run snack bar at Pinellas Park.

With the grant from the Eckerd Family Foundation, 61C in collaboration with Boys & Girls Clubs will open four such sites in the next three years.

Tara Stabile, the 30-year-old project director and one of the adults hired by the teens, said the first two new teen centers will be located in Jasmine Courts on 293 Saddle Wood Drive in Clearwater and the Northside Boys & Girls Club at 1035 Burlington Ave. N in St. Petersburg. Stabile said the two centers will be officially opened on Oct. 1.

Jasmine Courts' program is heavy on character-molding activities. This includes "Job ready," a program designed to orient members on job skills and prepare them for the job market. They also have dance and karate programs and step clubs. They already have a basketball league, sponsored by the Orlando Magic.

Tiara Richardson, a 14-year-old leader of the Jasmine Courts center, said they have a program to raise money to feed and clothe needy kids in the community.

"We decided to start with these programs in our community because these are activities that will keep teenagers out of trouble," Richardson said.

Teens of the Northside center meet early this week to decide on programs and games to run.

In 2003, the 61C concept will be replicated in Tarpon Springs at 111 West Lime St. The Southside branch of the center, on 22nd Street S in St. Petersburg, will be set up a year later, said Stabile, also the Director of Adolescent Services of Boys & Girls Clubs.

Jon Stone, a 15-year-old who is co-chairman of programing of the Pinellas Park 61C, said the difference between 61C and other teen-focused groups is that the youth of the organization actually plan their activities, decide what they want and how to get them done.

The youth organization has an administrative staff of hired adults. Decisions are made by the Youth Council of 40 teenagers. An Executive Board consisting of six teenagers, the project director, program director and an adult sponsor run the day-to-day affairs of the center.

The council meets once a week to run the organization. This includes preparing budgets, developing programs, hiring staff and planning events.

The teen center offers such community services as feeding the homeless, organizing computer classes, quiet rooms for studying and dances for teens.

61C is a product of the Millennium Celebration. The organization's first grant of $195,000 was awarded by the Juvenile Welfare Board.