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Few funds, big impact

Sat., Dec. 24, 2011

There’s nothing to do.

If every child in every town in every state in every nation of the world hasn’t said this, they must have felt it, at least once. But if you didn’t grow up in a small town, you might underestimate how real those words can be.

“There’s just not really much to do in Deer Park,” says Cynthia Alvarado, a 15-year-old high school sophomore. “I think the youth center is probably the main thing to do.”

Alvarado is referring to The Center – A Place for Youth, which is the latest and largest version of a volunteer-run project meant to give young people in Deer Park something to do. A few somethings, actually – a place to play games, skateboard, eat a free meal. The Center is part of a network of youth centers in the region’s small towns overseen by a nonprofit organization and operated primarily by volunteers and donations.

“It’s just a group of guys that want to have youth centers in our towns,” said Jim Sibley, a 42-year-old hot-rod builder and auto-body specialist who’s the Deer Park center’s volunteer director.

This Christmas season marks a sad anniversary for Sibley and other volunteers – but it’s an anniversary that helped spur the center’s rebirth. A key volunteer, Del Lentz, died while working on a remodeled and expanded youth center on Nov. 30, 2010.

“I found him on my way home from work,” said Mary Lentz, Del’s wife. She’s also the volunteer coordinator at the center, whom Sibley calls “the lady who does everything.”

Del Lentz’s death sparked an outpouring of giving to the center. More than $5,000 in memorial donations flooded in, Del’s friends stepped in to help with the remodeling, and the center reopened in May – complete with indoor skate and bike ramps, several table games, a place to eat and visit, and an educational center. The center is located in a storefront with big glass windows and linoleum tile on Crawford Avenue.

Mary Lentz said there is usually a short religious presentation as well. She and Sibley want to acquaint kids with Christian principles, but don’t want to make religion too large a part of the mix.

“We don’t stress it, because we don’t want to scare kids away,” she said. “It’s open for everybody. Some of the kids come to Christ. Some never do.”

Lentz and her late husband are the kind of people who make small towns work. For years, their extracurricular dedication was to the Clayton Grange. The grange burned down in 2005; Del Lentz was one of the volunteers who helped rebuild it. Later, they got involved with the Clayton fairgrounds, helping get a fair and a free community breakfast started.

A couple years ago, they got involved with the youth center – where they joined forces with Sibley. At that time, Sibley was running the project in a smaller building next door to the current one. Sibley had been in the BMX business in California before moving to Deer Park around eight years ago. He had a dream to expand the center and add indoor skatepark ramps, and once they worked out a deal to rent the larger storefront, he and Del Lentz began doing a lot of the remodeling work to get the place ready.

The Center reopened in May. Neither Sibley nor Lentz nor anyone else associated with it draws a paycheck; businesses donate money and goods, volunteers come and help out. Wilbur-Ellis Gas & Chemical Service donated $5,000 this week.

On Thursday night, Sibley and Lentz worked on hanging curtains in the front window while teenagers banged around on skateboards, played pingpong, and scarfed tuna casserole. It was a diverse group – Lentz in her holiday sweater and gray braids, Sibley in his Mohawk-like haircut and long goatee, an elderly volunteer and kids of all ages, down to the 5-year-old who was itching to have the Christmas lights turned on.

Sibley says that he began preaching to the kids after he was working with the center for a few years, and his brief Bible studies have become popular in and of themselves. But the center offers important nourishment for the body as well.

“A lot of kids in this town don’t get fed,” he said. “It’s a split town. You’ve got the golf course, where kids have money, and the other kids who don’t have hardly any.”

Sibley’s dedication to the kids in his town arises from a variety of sources, including his own childhood.

“I grew up in Kenai, Alaska,” he said. “There’s nothing to do!”

Nothing to do, nothing to do. At Deer Park’s youth center, there is something to do. On Thursday, 11-year-old Tristen McQuilkin worked on his skateboarding and biking. He’s been coming to the center regularly. Fifteen-year-old Carrie Tifft was there for the first time. She came along with a friend who wanted to go skateboarding, and she said she was having a good time.

What would she have been doing if she weren’t at the center?

She shrugged. “Probably sitting at home. Watching TV.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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