NEO Youth Center celebrates nine years of serving Nevada County at open house Thursday | TheUnion.com

NEO Youth Center celebrates nine years of serving Nevada County at open house Thursday

By 4 p.m. on any given day of the school week, the NEO Youth Center is a maelstrom of energy as kids come swirling in, shouting out to their friends and grabbing a snack before dispersing to various corners to play video games, get some help with homework, or — in the case of one quintet of middle-schoolers on Monday — lounge on a giant beanbag.

"Our participation has gone up 200 percent in the last year," said co-founder Lynn Skrukrud. "We're getting 30 new members a month."

NEO — which stands for New Events and Opportunities — was founded in 2008 by Skrukrud and Halli Ellis in response to a problem.

Too many youths were congregating in downtown Grass Valley during its weekly street fair and were getting into trouble, city leaders turned to the Drug-Free Coalition, which determined that a large part of the problem was that there was nothing for kids to do in Nevada County.

"Instead of excluding the teenagers from a family event like the street fair, we created a safe, drug-free environment, run by youth, that featured young performers, contests and games," Ellis wrote in a piece for The Union in 2010.

NEO's over-arching mission became encouraging healthy choices among peers by providing positive spaces to thrive; for the first six years, it acted as a pop-up youth center hosting more than 80 events a year throughout the community.

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NEO acquired a more permanent space in March 2015 on Joerschke Drive in Grass Valley, providing free after-school programming, workshops, and events for teens and young adults ages 11-25.

In the last year, Skrukrud said, NEO has focused its efforts on building up the youth center and doing more outreach. The center has four leadership teams that help plan and guide activities for the different age groups.

"They bring us their ideas," Skrukrud said. "It's youth-led, adult-guided."

The center provides about 30 youth a day with access to games, homework help, crafts and more during free drop-in hours from 3:30-6:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Those drop-in hours are open to students in grades 6-8 on Mondays, to grades 9-12 Tuesdays and Thursdays, and to grades 6-12 on Wednesdays. On Friday, the center is open from 2-9 p.m. for ages 14-25.

"They can just hang out, it's up to them what they want to do," Skrukrud said.

High school- and college-age mentors are on hand to act as "near-peer role models" — older students with similar interests, goals, and backgrounds.

Alina Georgeson, 24, was starting her first day as a mentor on Monday.

But the Alta Sierra resident, who is studying English at William Jessup University, already was familiar with many of the staff from her work with Campus Life.

"I'm here to form relationships with the kids, to be a consistent presence," Georgeson said, adding with a laugh, "We have an acronym at Campus Life, FART: Float Around the Room and Talk."

The 1,600-square-foot space is crammed to the gills with an office for staff, a multi-purpose room with a homework counter and a table for arts and crafts, and a second room that plays host to a video gaming center and a stage where youth can play instruments including drums, guitar and piano.

"We have a really small space," Skrukrud said, straining to be heard over the ruckus. "It gets pretty crowded here."

NEO has wanted to expand for a while, at one point hoping to move into the old Meeks Lumber space that recently was purchased by Tractor Supply Co.

"We still have that long-term goal, an all-ages community center," Skrukrud said.

"We'd like to double or triple our space," she said, adding that would enable her staff to offer more workshops. "We're looking at a few sites and hopefully we'll know more next month."

NEO will host its annual open house Thursday, in conjunction with the National Lights On Afterschool program. Staff and volunteers will offer guided tours of the youth center and there will be live music and food.

NEO also is launching a monthly giving campaign, Light the Way, in order to provide stable ongoing support for the center. Donors can pledge anything from $5 to $500 a month, Skrukrud explained, adding that the campaign brings the youth center about $3,000 a month currently and she hopes to increase that to $5,000 a month.

"I just encourage everyone to come check it out, to see what it's like," Skrukrud said,

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lkellar@theunion.com.

Know & Go

WHO: NEO Youth Center

WHAT: National Lights On Afterschool & NEO Youth Center Open House

WHEN: 5-7:30 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: NEO Youth Center, 139 Joerschke Drive, Grass Valley

INFO: http://www.ncneo.org or call 530-470-3869

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