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 Middle school students in the Farmington Hills Youth Centers program participate in Bernstein Day in 2014.

Middle school students in the Farmington Hills Youth Centers program participate in Bernstein Day in 2014.

Photo provided by Kitty Ostach from the Farmington Hills Youth Centers

Farmington Hills Youth Centers celebrates 25-year anniversary

Mayor’s Youth Council celebrates 20 years

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published March 11, 2020

 Middle school students in the Farmington Hills Youth Centers program swim in the pool with their friends.

Middle school students in the Farmington Hills Youth Centers program swim in the pool with their friends.

Photo provided by Kitty Ostach from the Farmington Hills Youth Centers

FARMINGTON HILLS — Twenty-five years ago, middle school students in the greater Farmington area didn’t have anywhere to go but home after school.

At a time when Farmington Hills Youth Centers Program Director Todd Lipa saw a spike in juvenile justice system numbers, he and Youth Centers program founder Nancy Bates knew they wanted to create a safe, supportive place for students to go after school. That’s when the Farmington Hills Youth Centers program was formed.

But that’s not the whole story.

Back in 1994, Lipa and Bates applied for a Community that Cares grant through the state and federal governments to start the youth program. They received the $400,000 three-year grant, but state officials weren’t optimistic about the program’s longevity.

“They wished us the best of luck but weren’t really sure whether it would work,” Lipa said.

In March 1996, Lipa and Bates opened the program at the Costick Center, and much to their surprise, the program grew rapidly. Their goal was to have 50 kids a day. The first day, 96 students showed up. Lipa said they had roughly 230 kids per day in the building at one point.

The Youth Centers opened another venue, at the Farmington Hills Ice Arena, in September 1996. Warner Middle School and the YMCA followed. Last came the Jon Grant Community Center.

Since the program’s inception, Lipa said, the goal has always gone beyond simply a place for after-school recreation.

“It does look like a program where you just throw the balls out and play with the kids, entertain them for a few hours, but it’s really more hands-on,” he said. “It’s about keeping as many kids as possible safe. It’s about keeping them off the street. … It’s the care you put into them.”

Lipa added that the program has always focused on providing students with agency in the type of program they wanted to grow.

Along with recreational activities — such as swimming, basketball and soccer; arts and crafts; nature adventures; and homework help — the program provides a safe haven for many students, helping them to work through challenges like divorce, eating disorders and bullying, and teaching them to be kind to one another.

The program has served more than 15,000 students.

About five years after the program’s inaugural year, Lipa began to notice a gap in the city’s youth programming that still needed to be filled. Students who had gone on to high school still wanted to be involved in the city.

That’s when the Mayor’s Youth Council came into play, which is celebrating its 20-year anniversary this year.

The students involved in the Mayor’s Youth Council have guided major changes and improvements around the city. Roughly 1,000 students have participated during its 20-year run.

The group has had a serious impact  — fundraising for Riley Skate Park, helping city officials discuss urban development, building diversity curriculum for Farmington Public Schools, hosting CPR classes, cultivating a community garden that helps to feed the community’s senior population and more.

“I don’t even think our kids truly understand how impressive it is that what they’re doing has a direct impact on our community,” said Hannah Fogarty, an advisor for the Mayor’s Youth Council.

The program has led former members, including Board of Education member Zach Rich and City Council member Samantha Steckloff, to come back to the area and take on leadership roles in their hometowns.

The program’s goals have stayed the same, but the challenges staff have faced have evolved.

“Absolutely the one at the top of our list are phones and electronics. They are face-down, looking only at their phones,” said Youth Centers Program Coordinator Kitty Ostach. The aim isn’t to stop them from using their phones but teach them how to use them safely and responsibly.

Issues arise, Ostach said, because conflicts and bullying can be done silently over technology.

Even back in the early 2000s, Lipa said, city officials were skeptical of giving the teens too much access to technology. The Youth Centers program wasn’t allowed to get a computer until City Council approved the action in 2004.

Despite these challenges, Lipa feels the program has had nothing but positive outcomes.

“What I appreciate the most is the confidence that in some ways we instill in the kids, and that’s maybe the greatest thing you can hope for, that — each area of their life — somebody can be there to give them a little bit of guidance, because we all need it,” he said.

Fogarty said she doesn’t think the city’s youth programming could ever be too big.

“There’s so many kids in this community that need it, and to be able to offer it to every kid who needs it would be amazing,” she said. “Twenty-five years down the line, that’s my goal.”

The Farmington Youth Centers and the Mayor’s Youth Council programs will host an anniversary celebration 3-5 p.m. March 13 at the Costick Center. Former and current youth program members will reflect on the impacts the program has made in their lives and likely will eat some birthday cake, too.