Teen Outback lets kids be kids

Photos by Kylie Schepers/The Herald
Kaydence Hobert, 9, of Holland plays a motorcycle arcade game at the Teen Outback in Huntingburg Thursday afternoon. Kaydence said she loves the Teen Outback because there's so much to do, "like arcade games, dodgeball and evening dancing."


HUNTINGBURG — Teen Outback is open and encouraging students to come in and play games, relax and have fun with people their age.

In other words, they can just be a kid.

“This is a place where they can come and hang out together, or even meet new people,” said Ali Helming, youth director of Teen Outback.

The center, located in Huntingburg, is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Wednesday and Thursday for kids to hang out at no cost. It’s open to kids in Dubois and surrounding counties. Kids can enjoy the video arcade, use computers, play on Xboxes, including one that is hooked up to a projector, play Skee-Ball and other games, and enjoy snacks in the the concession area.

Because of COVID-19, events had to stop for a moment. But Teen Outback has started having activities again, with the help of donors, volunteers, local schools and collaborating organizations like Dubois County CARES and Purdue Extension. The event held in April drew about 100 people, with the next one attracting about 120 and a third event having about 150 students. “So our attendance is growing,” Helming said.

Attendance hasn’t yet gotten to the levels it was before the virus. “But hopefully as time goes on, we can start to gain more kids,” Helming said.

Helming encourages students from other communities to come. “Even though this is in Huntingburg, this is meant for the entirety of Dubois County and surrounding counties,” she said. “We're starting to get kids from Pike (County). We're open to whoever wants to come and can come. They are welcomed here.”

The more kids from different areas who come to the Teen Outback, the more opportunities they have to meet new people, which is one of the goals.

“We want the kids to mingle with each other, because we have such small towns,” Helming said. “We think it's really good to get that diversity and include everybody and get that bigger sense of community.”

Leah Cooper, 9, of Winslow plays pool with her friends at the Teen Outback in Huntingburg Thursday afternoon.

Teen Outback had a summer fun event this month and will host its Back to School Bash in August. At these special events, the games and the arcade are open. There is a DJ who is a local student. The disco lights and black lights add to the atmosphere. “It’s a different environment than when we’re open on Wednesdays and Thursdays,” Helming said.

And there are the dodgeball tournaments, which Helming said the kids really enjoy. “That's probably their favorite thing,” she said.

Other activities have also been held, like limbo or even arts and crafts, depending on the age group. Teen Outback tends to have two special events each month during the school year as well.

At the Back to School Bash, there will also be inflatables, a dunk booth and food. “Kids can be inside doing things. But then we do have those outside activities,” Helming said.

Teen Outback strives to be a place students can spend time and have fun without the pressures of the world around them.

“With the alcohol rate and substance abuse rate being what it is, another part of our mission is for this to be a safe place for kids to come and hang out,” Helming said, “where kids can participate and engage in enriching educational and fun activities, and a drug- and alcohol-free, supervised environment.”

Kids know that when they come to the center, they can have fun, engage with other kids, or talk about issues they face.

“Some kids need more support than others. Some kids just need that person in their life to talk to, or to hang out with and to pay attention to them,” Helming said. “That is something I do enjoy about working at the Teen Outback. It has allowed me to interact more one on one with those kids.”

Helming has been youth director for about a year and a half.

When she started, she was youth coordinator. “It's definitely a little surreal,” she said.

That’s because the Jasper native attended Teen Outback activities in her youth.

“Back in the days when I came, things were a little different,” she said. “We still had the dodgeball tourneys and stuff like that. But back then they did bands. So there were like, the local bands with all the kids. That was really fun because I would know some people in the bands.”

Now, young DJs have replaced the bands.

“That's just kind of a reflection of how things have changed throughout the years,” she said, “to keep the kids coming.”

Helming has always been interested in working with kids and community. She has an associate’s degree in early childhood education.

“Working with kids is my thing,” she said. “I can relate to them, and I love working with families. So honestly, part of it was like social services and social work for me.”

She also has a bachelor’s degree in professional studies. “That includes things like diversity and team management, team building, business communication, grant writing,” she said. “It all does intertwine into nonprofit kind of work.”

A volunteer board of 12 people work together to keep the facility running, with Helming and a custodian being the center’s staff.

With students being involved in so many different activities nowadays, the center still draws kids from all over the the county and surrounding counties. Helming keeps up with the center’s online presence. And when school was in session, schools would send home the flyers about events that she gave them.

“The main reason why we've been able to even stay open as a nonprofit organization is the amazing support we have gotten from the community,” she said, “and that's from the county as a whole and even some of our surrounding counties. We have annual donors and we secure new donors each year. We're able to put that back in, to have these events and to keep our facility up and running.”

Helming also works to make sure the center is hosting activities kids want to do by having a teen advisory committee. Although she wasn’t able to do that last year, she did this year.

“I meet with middle school students. I bring them donuts and orange juice, they get little incentives, and I talked with them,” she said. “I ask them what they would like to see at the Teen Outback. What prizes can we have to bring you guys here? What activities can we get to keep you guys coming? It’s interacting and collaborating with the kids to make sure that we are doing what we need to, to get them to keep coming.” She plans to incorporate high school students on the committee, “so that we can get their perspective as well.”

The community can continue supporting Teen Outback in a few ways. They can volunteer their time. They can give donations to help keep the facility itself functioning. And they can share flyers and information about Teen Outback on their own social media platforms.

“If you are on Facebook or Instagram just sharing the stuff that we share is helpful,” Helming said. “If you see that we're having an event coming up, please take time to share that event. Because we really do want as many kids as possible in our community to take advantage of our facility and the things that we offer.”

Helming knows the impact Teen Outback can have on a kid, because she was one of those kids in the past. She is happy to support today’s kids as a positive role model.

“I enjoy working with kids,” she said. “They are our future. And they're just fun to be around.”

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