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November 7, 2013

Matthew Burrgraff, Principal at North Union Middle School, speaks with students about leadership skills at the North Star Center earlier this year. The North Star Center is a safe, supervised after-school center for youth in grades 4-12 in Richwood. It is funded in large part through the annual United Way campaign.
Gabriel Acosta started coming to the North Star Center three years ago when she was invited by a friend. Now the eighth-grader is a regular at the after-school center located in the heart of Richwood.

“It’s a safe place, a place to make friends,” she said. “They have fast computers so you can get your homework done and some better gaming devices. I come because it’s fun.”

Acosta is typical of the two dozen or so teens who swing by the upstairs office that was renovated into a youth center four years ago on a daily basis, looking for a place to fit in. Beyond a good time at the North Star Center, they’re finding themselves growing in maturity through the guidance of professional staff and role models with whom they interact when they’re there.

Kathryn Tumino is a Prevention Specialist with Maryhaven, a United Way Funded Partner who helps to staff the free facility. She says the youth who frequent tend to have limited resources and varying supervisory situations at home. The North Star Center reinforces positive, safe, drug-free alternatives during the peak free times of adolescence.

“We know that kids are more likely to get in trouble after school,” said Tumino. “That’s when they’re unsupervised. We just heard from a parent yesterday via Facebook. She wanted to know our hours because her kid wanted something fun to do. He was bored sitting home with his sister.”

The North Star Center opened in the summer of 2009 and has been welcoming youth from grades four through 12 to enjoy the features it has to offer. Those include two iMac computers with internet access for students, activities, the hottest new video games, an air hockey table and arcade-style basketball hoops, art and craft supplies. Summer field trips are coordinated to regional attractions such as the National Air Force Museum.

Interspersed among these attractions is where the North Star staff take the program to the next level. A partnership with teachers in the North Union Schools is helping kids stay on task with assignments from their classrooms.

“We have a family who has two kids who struggle with school,” Tumino said. “We work with the school counselor to assist them. What assignments they’re behind on and working to get them caught up. We have that partnership with the school. They look at us as a resource for kids who are hard to motivate. “

Two days each week, students in grades 6-8 participate in Leadership Academy, where guest speakers and community leaders present topics or help coordinate service projects, motivating attendees to become positive role models for their peers.

Michael Garey, a Prevention Specialist with Maryhaven, helps sixth-grader Caleb Jones with a computer project at the North Star Center. The North Star Center is a safe, supervised after-school center for youth in grades 4-12 in Richwood. It is funded in large part through the annual United Way campaign.
“It’s rewarding to see them excited about the Leadership Academy,” Tumino said. “When I first introduced it to them, I thought they were going to hate it. They’re coming here to have fun and I’m asking them to do work. But they enjoy it and we’re finding that some of them are showing up specifically for Leadership Academy.”

“I find it amazing to watch these kids grow into high-functioning members of society,” said Michael Garey, a fellow Prevention Specialist. “They may not have a lot of these resources at home, whether it’s the technology or the social interaction. But yesterday, there were a couple of high school sophomore girls here, hanging out with the younger kids, being positive role models. 10 or 20 years down the road, they’ll be able to identify the positive experiences of their youth and I believe North Star will be one of them.”

“If I hadn’t been coming here, I’d probably be in a lot more trouble with everything because of the people who were around me,” Acosta admitted. “I didn’t like anything and I didn’t trust anybody. Mike and Kathryn are here to help with anything. They’re here to talk about your problems. Now I trust people.”

The North Star Center is United Way’s fourth-largest funded program in 2013, receiving $30,000 from the annual campaign, which this fall, is working to raise $1 million to meet the social service needs of Union County.

“You may not know it, but when you give to United Way contributor, you’ll see people everyday who are benefitting from your gift,” said Tumino.

United Way works to bring neighbors and resources together to improve lives in Union County. United Way of Union County has raised more than $17 million for local needs since it was established in 1958. More than just a fundraiser, United Way collaborates with local businesses, government, and non-profit organizations to solve pressing social service issues large and small.

For more information, please visit www.unitedwayofunioncounty.org.
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