Teen shelter relocating to former funeral home

Sometimes, the answer to a problem can be hiding in plain sight, like a much-needed bigger teen center, said Lisa Hann, executive director of Family Services Inc., which serves all of Blair County.

Family Services will relocate its teen center from its current site at 3718 Sixth Ave. to a building at 17th Street and Sixth Avenue, which is very close to the Altoona Area high and junior high schools, Hann said.

The new location at 1701 Sixth Ave. will make it easier for teens to use because of its close proximity to the schools and other places that they like to hang out at, such as the Altoona Area Public Library, which is just across the street, Hann said.

In contrast, the existing center is much further away from places where teens and younger children congregate, she said.

“We know more kids are in need but just don’t know about the center,” Hann said.

By moving the center closer to the schools, the students will have much better access to its services, Hann said. The center provides a variety of services including individual, family and group counseling, emergency shelter for both girls and boys ages 12 to 17, life skills education and training, drop-in services, runaway prevention services, help finding appropriate living arrangements, referral to local resources and other services.

“I feel like we will get a lot of walk-in traffic from both of the schools,” she said.

The center will occupy the building formerly owned by Bill and Deb Bigelow, whose family operated the William G. Bigelow II Funeral Home at the corner-lot location since 1953, Bill Bigelow said. Before that, the site was used as a private home since it was built about 1918, he said.

He said he and his wife are very pleased about the plans for the home, which they sold to Family Services at a reduced price of $165,000.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the kids and for Family Services,” he said. “This is definitely all about the kids because they are our future.”

Bigelow said he was also happy that Family Services plans to maintain the integrity of the home and preserve the woodwork and stained glass windows in the house; however, Hann said the organization needs to raise about $300,000 to help pay for changes to the building to make it handicapped-accessible and make other necessary changes to renovate it for the teen center. She said Family Services is looking for corporate sponsors to help pay for the costs of the necessary changes to the building.

Hann said she’s been trying to find a new location for the teen center, which she hopes to open in early fall, ever since she took over as executive director two years ago. She asked the organization’s board of directors what it wanted to change about the group, and moving the center was on the board’s wish list.

Then one day, she was sitting in her car at the stoplight at 17th Street and Sixth Avenue, and she had her answer.

“All of a sudden, I looked over at the funeral home, and it just clicked. Everything is right there, so that would be a great place for our center,” she said.

For the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 38 children and teens have resided at the existing teen center, spending a total of 286 days in the shelter, Hann said. During the same period, the center has received 117 calls on its teen help hot line, and the organization has provided 597 hours of individualized counseling, she said.

The need to help kids with varying degrees of issues is growing as the economy and drug abuse problems worsen in today’s society, Hann said. The center offers several options, such as a drop-in service, where youths can stop by for a chat with a trained professional to discuss something that’s bothering them. There’s also a clothes closet if they need clothing and a place to get a hot meal if that’s what’s needed, Hann said.

“Sometimes, they just need somebody to sit and talk with them or lend an ear,” she said.

In more serious cases, there are a variety of situations where children must leave their homes temporarily, and they can live at the teen center for up to 21 days. The new center will expand the number of beds that the center can provide, Hann said. Situations include parental medical emergencies and physical or substance abuse cases, she said.

In cases of runaways, the center must notify the parents within 24 hours, but officials usually prefer the child is the one who calls the parents, Hann said. The center will offer counseling to the whole family to help resolve the issue, she said.

Hann said she has already notified all the school districts in Blair County about the relocation of the teen center by sending letters to school administrators, teachers and guidance counselors. One elementary school already decided to help by collecting money for the renovation of the center and sent in a donation, she said. In addition to financial donations, the center can always use donations of twin bed sheets, other linens and household supplies.

To donate to the center, call Family Services at 944-3583 or go to its website at familyservicesinc.net