After more than a decade as a hub for the city's youth, the popular Ground Zero teen center in Bellevue is searching for a larger home...

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After more than a decade as a hub for the city’s youth, the popular Ground Zero teen center in Bellevue is searching for a larger home, even as it’s struggling with funding problems that threaten to scale back programs or even shut them down.

The teen center is in more demand than ever for its programs, said Kathy Haggart, president and CEO of the Bellevue Boys and Girls Club, which owns the building across from Bellevue’s Downtown Park. She described the former church as a “little building bursting at the seams” with activity, from rock concerts to buffets for homeless youth.

At the same time, Haggart said, a cut in federal funding a few years ago has left Ground Zero scrambling to stay open. The teen center is short about $40,000 to $60,000 each year now, with no reserves left.

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“It’s a struggle,” Haggart said. “Money doesn’t just fall from the sky.”

Haggart is working with a committee to find new sources of money and said she is confident that the center will stay open. But if the center doesn’t get enough money, it is possible that Ground Zero will have to scale back from six nights a week to three, she said.

Haggart is working with the city to find another location for Ground Zero, one that would better suit the needs of the growing center. There are three possibilities, none of which Haggart would name. She also is asking the city to donate space free of charge.

“This is something the city needs and the kids want,” said Haggart. “I’m feeling pretty optimistic about it.”


Information



Ground Zero Teen Center:
www.gzteencenter.org or

www.bgcbellevue.org


City officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Ground Zero, also called the GZ Teen Center, operates out of a large beige house next to the Bellevue Boys and Girls Club on 100th Avenue Northeast. Built in 1905 for a church congregation, the building in recent years has had thousands of teenagers pass through its doors, looking for everything from to drum classes to drama workshops.

The sheer numbers are overwhelming, Haggart said. Late-night basketball draws 60 or 70 teenagers to the parking lot. An average concert will draw hundreds of young people to the center.

“We consistently sell out the venue and have to turn kids away,” said Malia Alexander, 17, who runs the music program. “That’s the most heartbreaking thing in the world to me.”

Alexander said she first came to Ground Zero at age 13, at a time when she could not find her footing in life. She had spent years moving around with her mother, staying on sofas at the homes of friends and relatives. But that summer, while staying with her grandparents in Bellevue, Alexander walked into Ground Zero on a whim and found some sense of home.

It was nothing more than a few hundred kids, all crowded and sweaty in the same space, listening to a kind of music she had never heard. But to hear her tell it, the moment moved Alexander’s life forward.

“I fell in love with the people, I fell in love with the music, I fell in love with the place,” she said.

At the urging of staff members there, Alexander threw herself into activities. She started piano lessons. She got involved with drama. The more time she spent at Ground Zero, the more confidence she got.

“I love that they let me be a part of it, when I was so young and had no idea what I wanted to do or be,” said Alexander, now a freshman at the University of Washington who has made the dean’s list. “They gave me responsibility and made me really proud.”

It costs about $140,000 a year to run Ground Zero, for everything from salaries of the seven paid staff members to the food always available for kids. Most of that funding comes from the city, Haggart said, but the center had relied for several years on the grant from the federal government.

It’s tough to raise money for teen programs, Haggart said, because donors apparently aren’t as inspired by them as they are by programs for younger children.

But she points to teenagers like Alexander, who rely on Ground Zero, as a reason to keep pushing harder.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com