“If there wasn’t a teen center, teenagers would be bored and they would probably get into trouble,” said Desiray Miles, 13, San Carlos Apache. Miles is one of four teenagers hanging out at the Boys and Girls Club of the San Carlos Apache Nation in southeastern Arizona.
Whether boredom is a factor or not, Native American teenagers are committing crimes at an alarming rate. According to the Tribal Court Clearinghouse website, while the crime rate for U.S. youth is decreasing, the crime rate for violent crimes among Native American teens continues to grow. In San Carlos, until recently the juvenile detention center has been almost full to capacity. That’s why the club, equipped with table games, a big screen TV, computers and video games, is a welcomed sight. Similar centers are cropping up around the country. San Carlos teens know their peers are at risk of being incarcerated.
“Kids make their own fun but it can lead to drugs and alcohol [use],” said Tim Johnson Jr., 17, San Carlos Apache/Sioux, who plays pool at the club.
“I’ve had young relatives and friends who’ve been in jail for underage drinking,” said Jasmine Tewawina, 15, San Carlos Apache/Hopi, a teen center visitor.
The Boys and Girls Club, housed inside an old bowling alley, is one of 202 Boys and Girls Club facilities in Indian country. Local artists recently spruced up outside brick walls with murals depicting Apache culture and 21st century jobs. A skateboard park is also attached to the building.
The San Carlos club, which opened in 2005 and is funded by the San Carlos Apache Tribe, is a magnet for kids under the age of 11, which is typical for other clubs. As many as 60 young children show up after school to get help with homework and participate in activities. Teenagers pop in only to walk right back out. Seeing teens quickly exit prompted the club’s director to make changes and draft plans for the club.
“During the summer we offered programs that were more age appropriate and made it more fun,” said Tim Johnson Sr., 41, the club’s director.
The club’s youth mentors promote character and citizenship development, which includes treating everyone with respect. Teaching life skills is a priority. “A lot of our instructors and mentors showed them that they cared about them,” Johnson added.
Not surprisingly, many teens respond positively to the attention they receive. Youth mentor and tribal member, Derek Chapman, 29, worked with a teenage boy who had been incarcerated for six months. “They said he was a bad kid but I gave him space and attention in a structured place. No one judged him. At home they get yelled at or judged. Here, if they get in trouble, we engage in reflective discussions,” said Chapman. The boy kept coming back, stayed out of trouble and returned to school.
According to the San Carlos Tribal Enrollment office, nearly one-third of the tribe’s population (4,286) is under the age of 17. The elder Johnson, who stayed in a boy’s home for abandoned and troubled youth during his teenage years, knows how critical it is to reach at-risk teens at an early age. In a Boys and Girls Club survey, 57 percent of its alumni said the club saved their lives. Johnson plans to leave the teen center open until 9 p.m. so the youth have a safe place to go and have fun without alcohol or drugs.
“It’s really great. I like it because it’s a place where I can be myself,” said Tewawina. Others agree. “It’s really nice and it’s really fun. I hope more teenagers will find out about it and hang out,” said Miles. Hang out and as the Boys and Girls Club slogan says, begin a great future.