September 28, 2011 by wcobserver
Prairie Grove couple creates after-school space for teens
By Terry Ropp
In today’s world, both parents often work. The result is that older students are often left with little or nothing to do during the after school hours. These idle teens are more likely to make poor choices. An small organization in Prairie Grove, however, is doing something about it. Something big.
Located in the middle of town is The Big House, a place where many teens choose to hang out during those empty, after-school hours for almost six years now.
The Greshams were a fairly typical couple with Jay working as a system tech for Southwestern Bell and Melissa saying at home with the family. Both had done youth volunteer work in the past. Then one day they felt called by God to establish a Christian-based after-school program for the idle teens in Prairie Grove. Thus began the quest for a location and funding.
At that time, Jay’s work day was over at 3:00. The fit was natural with his wife setting up and opening the location before he comes after work. As they were about to open, his work schedule changed putting the whole concept in serious jeopardy. Jay, however, felt compelled to quit his job. Some support money started flowing in, and the Greshams began in earnest, choosing to live on one-third of their previous income to make The Big House happen. Five years and a few additional rooms later, the program is thriving.
From the beginning, the program was open for students from seventh grade through high school, four days a week. The couple chose to be closed on Wednesdays so as not to conflict with area church activities.
As they were preparing the building, students stopped by and volunteered to help. They already wanted to be there. The organization has never advertised, instead growing by word of mouth. In the first three weeks of the school year, 120 different students have already enjoyed the facilities.
The Big House had the full support of the city from the beginning but experienced a lack of support from other sectors of the community until a full understanding of the program goals and methods emerged. Now the board is comprised of members from many sectors. The current co-chairs are Joe and Rosie Elledge, who were so impressed when they came to the open house in 2006, that they wanted to become part of the program.
Not surprisingly, The Big House experienced some birthing pains. Students had decorated the walls with graffiti. Instead of creating the expected comfortable atmosphere, a negative vibe emerged that spread to attitudes and behaviors. Time to repaint. When they first saw the bright colors and positive word decorations, the teens complained that the place felt like a nursery. Soon, however, the disgruntled youth not only adjusted but actually liked the happier atmosphere.
“It doesn’t seem like just a place to hang out, like a business or anything,” said Ricky Moses, who started going to The Big House when it first opened more than five years ago. Now 22, Ricky was visiting his old stomping ground and chatting with Melissa.
“It feels like home,” said Ricky, standing in the newly expanded portion of The Big House where Melissa was frying up after-school pancakes behind the long lunch counter. “It’s a place you can be, but not like an arcade or something. If you have a problem at home and you’re upset and stressed out or something like that, I can come talk to Jerry. He was somebody I could look up to, somebody I could talk to.”
Another difficulty was love creating the balance between love and standards. Before coming to The Big House, Ricky said he had been affiliated with gangs around the area. And in the beginning, the teens acted as if they deserved rather than appreciated everything the Greshams offered, said Melissa. To make a point, they one day pushed all the trash the kids had careless thrown around toward the front door and made the kids walk though it to get in. Then they had the surprised teens sit down while they explained two standards: right behavior with kindness and picking up their own trash.
“We explained to them we built this place for everybody to feel welcome; and if one person didn’t feel welcome, they were stomping on what we were trying to do,” said Melissa. “We also said that words could build people up or tear them down and in this place we would build them up. Then we told them to go home. The Big House was closed for the day.”
The teens soon took ownership of the ideas and added two rules of their own: no fighting and no bad language. Since then, The Big House has been a firm, positive place kids like to be. Sometimes one teen will have had a bad day and start taking it out on everyone else. The rotating group of adult volunteers have a standard line they use: “We don’t run a daycare. If you are going to be two years old today, go home and come back tomorrow. Sometimes they straighten up and sometimes they go home, but they are always welcomed back.”
Inside The Big House there’s is a pool table, several video game stations, and even a rock-climbing wall. More recent additions to the program include a basketball court, a bicycle repair shop, and amentoring program with a sit-down meal on alternating Tuesday nights for girls and boys. After their meal, the girls work on projects while the guys usually have pool or basketball tournaments.
“We saw a need for one-on-one contact in a more intimate setting so we could learn more about them as individuals,” said Rosie, who is highly involved with the mentoring program. “Many need another adult in their lives for opinions, support and direction in life.”
Now The Big House is on the verge of evolving again. Melissa said that she and Jay understand they are not the only ones who can do this and perhaps not even the best ones to take The Big House where it needs to go as it evolves into a stronger, more effective instrument in the lives of these kids. As a result, Jay has gone back to school to become a nurse, and the team is searching for new adult leaders.
“The hardest part is finding volunteers for our time of day because most people work then,” said Melissa.
Many “youth hangout” programs have tried and failed where The Big House is succeeding. When questioned why their project works, Melissa simply said, “God’s time, God’s plan.” The Gresham’s are midwives preparing to move on to their next calling — wherever and whatever that may be. In the meantime, they are thoroughly enjoying their days at The Big House.