From the Magazine: Lab Work at the YMCA

ymca
Jason Hagensick, photo by Aaron Bristol

The YMCA launches an innovative place for kids to grow

What used to be large retail space in the outdoor wing of Town Center mall behind Joseph’s Classic Market has assumed a life of its own. Instead of selling clothes or iPhones or Yeezys, this space is hawking opportunity. Engagement. A room of one’s own.

The Lab, an outgrowth of the South County YMCA, under the leadership of President and CEO Jason Hagensick, opened in February to provide a place for teens to meet and experience any number of programs, from college and career readiness to volunteerism or workforce development. There may be video production or an arts studio session or a visit from local civic leaders to talk about government or marine biology or climate change. But it’s not about what Hagensick thinks is important; it’s a balance, he says, between youth development programs—and what the kids want.

“The big thing here is that if this is going to be successful, it’s going to have to depend and rely on the teens themselves taking ownership of the space. Our goal is not for the staff to tell them how to do things. Our goal is to give them the tools, the space and the encouragement to experience and grow and succeed on their own. Hopefully, we stay out of their way as much as we possibly can.”

The space is intended for teens aged 12 to 17, and is focused on delivering programs that appeal to their interests, some with a long connection to the YMCA culture, like the Blue Ridge Assembly or the International Y Service Club. Hagensick also envisions creative writing, fashion, public speaking through teen TED talks—whatever the teens themselves gravitate to.

And there’s a reason The Lab is at the mall; as Hagensick says, “Where do kids enjoy spending their free time?”

In addition to the Town Center partnership, The Lab will also rely on the involvement of local corporate partners. Chick-fil-A wants to align its established leadership program with the YMCA; Baptist Health is a natural when it comes to teen stress and mental heath issues. And the Chamber has its successful YEA! program for young entrepreneurs.

“This will only be successful if the community supports this,” Hagensick says. “We cannot do this alone. We need the teenagers, we need the parents, we need the corporate community—we need as much support as we can get if this is going to work.”

The Lab started its first programs in March and April; it will expand its initial hours (3 to 8 p.m.) to longer hours this spring and summer. “YMCA people—and I am a ‘Y guy’—are youth developers at our core,” Hagensick says. “Throughout my 30-year career at the YMCA I have always strived to give kids and teens opportunities to learn, grow and succeed in life. Personally, I get tremendous satisfaction out of that.”

This story is from the May/June 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.