Ocoee Youth Center opens

Ocoee Youth Center opens

May 25th, 2013 by Paul Leach in Local Regional News

Work crews make final preparations before cement is poured into the sidewalk areas in front on the Ocoee Youth Center, the Benton, Tenn., unit of the Boys & Girls Club.

Photo by Paul Leach/Times Free Press.

BENTON, Tenn. - The Boys & Girls Club of Benton soon will open the doors to its brand-new, 5,100-square-foot facility on Campbell Road.

On Thursday, officials gathered to commemorate the grand opening of the Ocoee Youth Center and to celebrate the vision of Cindy Hooker, director of the Benton club. The event capped eight years of work to get the club out of space rented from Mercy Tabernacle.

Hooker said she has questioned why she seeks to help children by giving them advice, encouragement and someone to talk to. The stories she hears about family struggles with drugs and abuse are from a different world than the one she comes from, she said.

"I think it's because I was always so loved by such wonderful parents who taught me what service is and taught me how to love other people," Hooker said about what drives her pursuit of creating a safe place for children to learn, grow and achieve.

The Benton club, which falls under the administrative umbrella of the Cleveland Boys & Girls Club, is the result of exceptional persistence, said Steve Hixson, past president of the Cleveland organization's board.

Chet Nichols, director of organizational development for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, was there for the celebration.

"Twenty years from now there'll be kids from Benton, Tennessee, that say, 'This place and these people saved my life,'" Nichols said.

Hooker said the Ocoee Youth Center offers a computer lab, a kitchen and areas dedicated to education, fellowship and gaming.

"This is what I consider Phase I," she said. "I would like to build a gym and a stand-alone teen center nearby."

The facility, which sits on 3.76 rural acres donated by Polk County, is ideally situated, Hooker said. Not only does the Ocoee Youth Center have a wonderful view of trees and mountains, it also gives easy access to children who live in nearby low-income housing.

Construction was launched in October, funded through a USDA Rural Development combined low-interest loan and grant package of $400,000, Hooker said. The grant portion is $100,000; the loan amounts to $300,000.

Hooker said she believes the Ocoee Youth Center will be able to sustain itself, considering that the loan payments are lower than rent at the former location.

Only a few items remain to be completed before the facility is fully operational, she said. On Thursday, crews finished up ADA-compliant sidewalk construction, and sewer service will be connected soon.

The new site is expected to increase the club's visibility, translating into more members and more financial support, Hooker said. With more funding, she said, she would like to pay off the 38-year Rural Development loan early and explore transportation options for the youth center.

Contact Paul Leach at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.