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LIFT Youth Center Inc. plans to host a soft opening of the new Claudia Nance Rollins Youth Center in Ringgold sometime next month following the building's remodel.

The center is currently seeking fifth- to 12th-grade student leaders who can help identify community needs and have a part in creating programs for the youth center.

Executive Director and Head of Programming Tina Pinkston said she hopes to have a diverse group of student leaders from all backgrounds. The goal of the center will be to create an inclusive space where both marginalized and non-marginalized students feel they belong, she said.

"We're looking for student leaders who will stand up for other students and be an active voice in the community for inclusion," said Pinkston.

LIFT will also have a core group of adults and parents called "village leaders" who will help guide students and help with program and event planning for the center.

Training for these positions will occur over the next few months in anticipation of the official opening at the start of the new school year in August.

LIFT started in 2018 as a nonprofit organization hosting monthly events geared toward creating a sense of community and belonging for Catoosa County students who felt isolated. Over the next year, the need for a physical youth center became obvious when LIFT started receiving requests from its growing number of involved students and parents, Pinkston said.

According to statistics on the organization's website, 69% of county students surveyed said they were not usually with other people and 30% said they did not have close friends.

The ensuing pandemic has only exacerbated feelings of loneliness and isolation for much of the American public, particularly younger students. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and November 2020, the number of emergency room visits due to mental health problems was up 31% for children ages 12-17 and 24% for those ages 5-11 as compared with the same period in 2019.

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In 2019, LIFT received a grant from the Claudia Nance Rollins family to buy a building for the youth center. Renovation of the building, located at 7197 Nashville St., was delayed due to the pandemic, but started this January.

"We want to make sure we adhere to all the proper safety measures from remodeling to when we open, even if that includes limited occupancy according to COVID guidelines," Pinkston said.

Once remodeling of the building is finished, there will be an official ribbon-cutting in April followed by a soft opening and ticketed kickoff event where the community can come and see what the center has to offer.

The finished youth center will feature a welcome and resource center where students can check in. In addition, there will be a gaming area, art room, stage, educational room, music room and conference room.

The center will have after-school drop-in hours from 2:30-6:30 p.m.

LIFT wants to partner with other youth-focused organizations in Catoosa County, allowing them to hold events at the center in order to serve as a "bridge builder" between them and the students.

The organization has already partnered with the Catoosa County Library to create a library/tech space at the center. LIFT will also partner with several local sports, music and art organizations, Pinkston said.

These partnerships will allow for events and classes in the daytime, evenings and on the weekends, ranging from counseling to art and music classes to educational workshops on topics relevant to youth.

"Having a physical youth center will allow us to build lasting connections with students and give them access to other resources that can foster their growth and help them overcome struggles," she said.

Pinkston used the analogy of a river to represent the struggles that students face. A child might think they can face the river alone, but once they get into the river they realize it's too deep to cross on their own.

"We want to get upstream of the river so that we can save kids from drowning," said Pinkston, adding that the youth center is meant to be a place where they can learn to overcome "life's rivers."

Those interested in being a student or village leader can contact Pinkston at tina@lift-ringgold.org or apply directly on the LIFT website.

Contact Samantha Burgess at samrenee1998@yahoo.com.

LIFT Youth Center a State of Hope site

LIFT Youth Center Inc. was recently selected to become a designated State of Hope site and to receive funding to aid with project implementation.

"This is perfect timing for such a wonderful vote of support from a statewide professional entity," said LIFT Executive Director Tina Pinkston. "We will be opening our facility in Ringgold this spring for its initial stages, and to know (the Department of Family and Children Services) is behind us says a lot.

"The Claudia Nance Rollins Youth Center will be the first of its kind and the beginning of a legacy of hope-building which we intend to ripple throughout our community in many beautiful ways."

More than 200 applications were submitted across the state, with approximately 10% of those selected to receive funding. LIFT Youth Center Inc. was one of a handful that received the highest level of funding, according to a release.

The State of Hope initiative aims to transform Georgia into a collection of communities where children and families have all they need to thrive and succeed. Innovative local strategies and partnerships are key to achieving that goal and are asked to submit "big ideas" that focus on improving the lives of children and families in one or more of four categories: education, trauma-informed practice, quality caregiving and economic self-sufficiency.

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