The motion-sensored LED lights flick on automatically, illuminating the modern, open-office-style floor plan as we enter the lobby of the brand-new Citi Teen Center in Springfield. Newly opened at the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the teen center is one of 25 Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Florida that provides area youth with a range of services from homework help to career services while imparting the BGCNF’s core values–education, healthy living, character, leadership, etc. 

My tour guide this morning is Area Director Wyatt Parlette. And as we move through the facility, first to a functioning barber shop, then to a music and audio recording studio, and then a robotics and computer coding laboratory, it’s clear that the teen center is unlike the Boys & Girls Clubs I attended as a youth. In fact, between the modernist furniture and the abundance of tech, the building could just as easily house a Silicon Valley startup as it does the 70-plus Duval County teenagers that are here after school each day. And that’s kind of the point. 

“All this came from the kids,” Parlette says. “We asked them ‘What do you want to see here in this building?’ So that’s why you see we have the video game stations, but also the computer lab where they can make their own video games. That’s why you see a movie theater and a print studio. These are the things they were interested in.”

As the nature of work has changed in our modern world, the skills that are required to participate in the workforce have morphed dramatically. And public schools have struggled to keep up. The teen center, with its emphasis on a broad range of career skills, from cosmetology to coding, is helping kids not only keep pace, but enter the workforce with a clear idea of who they are and what they want to be. 

“When we talked about career paths, I think it’s just as important to know what you don’t want to do,” says Parlette, as we enter a currently vacant room that will soon house an industrial kitchen where kids will learn a range of service industry skills. “So maybe you don’t end up as a chef or line cook; but at least you know how to chop an onion and cook for yourself.”    

As important as it is to be exposed to new skills, Parlette says it’s equally important to engage with people actually using those very skills being taught. And besides working with volunteers from various high-skilled fields each and every day, they’ll also be exposed to art and working artists regularly. 

One such artist has already left her mark on the teen center. A few weeks prior to the facility opening, local artist and founder of Kid’s Mural Project, Nicole “Nico” Holderbaum, installed a large-scale mural to the wall of the teen center’s well-appointed gymnasium. Holderbaum’s mural—two hulking bulls that pay homage to the widely feared, perennially unbeatable Lee Bulls AAU basketball team that’s long called the building home—is the first. But it won’t be the last. 

Through her Kid’s Mural Project and funds raised during the popular Kolor Me Kona event at Kona Skatepark in Arlington, Holderbaum has assembled a roster of more than 20 local artists to install murals at the teen center. Aside from producing large-scale works of art, the artists will participate in workshops and mentorship programs with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Florida.  

“Creative expression can be therapeutic. Art can be an outlet for dealing with anger, behavioral issues, stress, anxiety, depression, and insecurity for so many youth.”

Parlette, an artist himself, (and former gallery runner at Downtown Jax’s Space Gallery), brought Holderbaum into the Boys & Girls Club fold a few years ago. She’s already produced or helped produce several murals at other BG&C sites in Jax, including three at Arlington Heights Elementary. 

“She’s really spearheaded this into something bigger than I could have imagined,” Parlette says. “It went from, ‘Hey Nicole, can we get a mural in here?’ to ‘Ok, how about 20 artists and a ton of murals?’ 

Holderbaum says her involvement with the teen center grew organically from her experiences with young artists in the region. 

“Teenagers are in such a crazy point in their lives where they are so impressionable, insecure, fragile, angry, and confused,” she says about sharpening her focus on the teen center. “At that time in their lives, many kids don’t have many options for what path they take, but the Boys and Girls clubs provides options; and safe ones.” 

Like Parlette, Holderbaum emphasizes the importance of providing creatively inclined kids the opportunities to actually create. “Our public education system does not provide sufficient support for creativity and creative expression, and for that reason the kids that excel in those areas don’t have the opportunity to see their strengths, or believe that they can succeed as an artist, singer, dancer, etc.,” she says. “Beyond that, creative expression can be therapeutic. Art can be an outlet for dealing with anger, behavioral issues, stress, anxiety, depression, and insecurity for so many youth.”

Before this issue heads to the printer, two more local artists—Its Julissa and Tilin—will begin adding an abstract, free-flowing mural inside one of the teen center’s stairwells. Future murals from a formidable list of local artists, including Christopher Clark, Jasmine Aldershoff, Jarrett Walker, Tatiana Phoenix, and others will fill the walls as they’re funded. Holderbaum and her Kid’s Mural crew are planning a smattering of fundraisers to both complete the mural productions and to acquire art from local artists to be hung about the building. While it’s unclear what all this art will look like when completed, it’s certain that the kids at teen center will be swimming in creativity. 

“We want to emphasise that there are a ton of paths you can take in life. And making art is a credible path,” says Parlette. “Nicole is a great example for the kids. And to have so many artists brought in, that’s just going to make it all the more real to them that artist is a path you can take.”

“This is really so much more than murals,” Holderbaum says of her work with the teen center. “The ultimate purpose of the Kid’s Mural Project is to empower youth to embrace their individuality and develop confidence in themselves. Even if they don’t grow to become a mural painter.”

The Kid’s Mural Project is currently in the midst of a GoFundMe campaign to finance the murals and art acquisitions for the Citi Teen Center. CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT THE CAUSE. 

This feature originally appeared in the Nov. 2019 issue of Void Magazine (Vol. 10, Iss. 7), “Do Good” under the headline “Looks Like Teen Spirit.”