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Welcome to the hottest spot in town

For a few hours every Friday night at the Bremerton YMCA, the kids get a chance to rule the roost.

They run around, jump up and down, throw and catch, swim and breakdance.

They are everywhere — in every corner, on every inch of floor space.

Since the weekly Teen Late Nite program started in 1993, thousands of kids have spent their Friday evenings at the YMCA. They have made the choice not to participate in other popular teen alternatives — drinking with friends or causing havoc in the city.

“Friday night is the most common night to get in trouble,” said 15-year-old Ulysses Williams, who has spent most of his Friday nights for the last three years playing hoops at the YMCA. He wore a black headband, with his socks pulled up to his knees at a recent Teen Late Nite. “Some people go out, vandalize things, pick fights with people, steal stuff from stores. I’ve seen that happen,” he said.

While Williams paused to chat, about 60 kids were busy dribbling, shooting, passing and yelling on the court. Many have been playing here for years. The gym is divided in half, and four-on-four games proceed on the other side.

“Most of the guys I play with I know,” Williams said.

The same holds true for a lot of the kids that come. On an average night, between 80 and 130 show up to play around and socialize. Some serve up games of volleyball, some go swimming, others play dodge ball, board games or just sit in the hot tub. The rest of the kids can be found in the open hallways of the Y, just kicking it.

There’s no hugging or kissing allowed. There is usually about 20 adult supervisors around, always providing a watchful eye.

“At school there’s a lot of kids that who are doing drugs and getting arrested. In here, none of that goes on,” said Devon Vanderbush, another 15-year-old from Bremerton Junior high.

The age range is 19 and younger, and the big emphasis from staff is on character development. According to Bruce Waterbury, who helped found the program 10 years ago, the staff is focused on helping kids learn four main character traits — respect, honesty, caring and responsibility.

“I doubt if very many places do that,” said Waterbury. “I would say that we are the only place in the county that offers the whole gamut of swimming, games, dodge ball, basketball.”

The program was initially started to give kids in local gangs an alternative to violence and crime. Back then, the Friday night hours were 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Eventually, times were changed so that kids weren’t thrown out on the street after midnight. Now at about 10:40 p.m. a voice comes over the intercom.

“May I have your attention? It is pizza time. Be sure to grab all your stuff and make sure your rides are called.”

Within about five minutes, dozens of kids have filed out of the building to grab a couple slices of pizza and some soda.

For a non-member, the Late Teen Nite fee is $5. A youth membership is $17 a month.

“Considering the fee they have to pay to get in here, they get their money’s worth and then some,” said Andre Coleman, who has worked in the program for the last four years.

“I love it because you earn the respect of the kids,” he said. “It is nice to have them call you by your name. You really get to know the kids.”

When Coleman gets to work at 8 p.m. they are already lining up from the door down around the parking lot.

“We know there are some kids this program means quite a lot to,” said Waterbury.

Since early on, Waterbury has coordinated transporting kids from the Westpark housing development to the YMCA on Friday nights and back again. Some of the kids he has bussed in have had anger problems, but he has seen them change.

“If someone breaks a rule we talk to them and try to mentor them,” Waterbury said. Initially, some of the kids didn’t listen to a thing he or the staff had to say. But over time, they stopped stepping up and started to listen. They learn respect.

“Respect for the program and respect for others,” Waterbury explained.

According to 17-year-old Star Lockhart, there isn’t a better place to spend her Friday night. She is a junior at South Kitsap High School.

“Breakdancing is my love,” she said.

She joins about 25 regular breakdancers who hang out in the second floor loft practicing their spins, flips and inverts on the hardwood floors.

“A lot of the breakdancers break on garage floors,” Lockhart said, “but here you get a chance to breakdance on hardwood floors. I personally practice on carpet, which is a very big change.”

Like many of the other kids, Lockhart takes advantage of the opportunity to sweat and dance her night away.

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