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Andrew Wedgebury
Students find second home in Nevada County
Neo Youth Center offers activities and much more
In one room on a small stage with lights and a public-address system, a band rehearses for a show that night. In another room, an intense game of pool is going on while several other kids battle for mastery of a Beatles tune on Guitar Hero. Welcome to the NEO Youth Center in Grass Valley, a thriving hub of activity that offers free after-school drop-in hours five days a week for middle school, high school and college-aged youth.

Founded by Halli Ellis-Edwards and Lynn Skrukrud about two and a half years ago, the center offers table games, crafts, sports, homework help, a stage with more than15 instruments, workshops and events. The center is part of a three-pronged effort that includes school outreach programs at six local middle schools and community events such as an annual fashion show and the Kenny Steel Student Showcase.

“The growth in attendance has been amazing,” Skukrud said recently at the center office while a guitarist practiced in the background. “We are on track to serve 500 kids this year.”

In 2015, the number stood at 170. In 2016, it jumped to 370, with visits to the center reaching 2,500. Skrukrud and Ellis-Edwards, friends since high school, had been organizing youth-oriented events throughout the area as NEO for eight years before the center became a reality. They said they recognized a need for youth to have a safe and positive venue to attend when unsupervised and unengaged.

“We saw that a lot of kids were home alone or just hanging around town, particularly from 3 to 6 p.m. after school. We had also seen a lot of our peers making poor choices. And for decades it seems there had been a lot of talk by the city about starting a youth center, but nothing had really come from it,” Skrukrud said.

“Halli and I came at it from a different perspective. We already had a following of kids from presenting more than 70 events a year in 25 different locations and had lots of youth support and backing. Plus Halli and I were 19 when we started the organization, so we came from a youth-oriented model.”

Skrukrud noted that activities and improvements at the center come from a high school leadership team that meets monthly and an outreach team that also meets monthly and works with the junior high leaders to create fun and engaging lunchtime activities. Nevada Union High School also has a NEO club that plans campus events.

NEO is a nonprofit organization that receives the bulk of its income from individual contributions, grants and fundraising events. One of the biggest events is the NEO Empire Challenge – Run and Walk that winds through the picturesque trails of Empire Mine, with a course filled with activities such as Where’s Waldo Woods, High Five Hill, and live music. The third annual event is coming on Saturday, Oct. 14.

The Kenny Steel Student Showcase, which presents the instrumental and vocal skills of area youth, is another community event. Local music teacher Kenny Steel has known Halli and Lynn for years and been involved with numerous NEO events in multiple venues.

“Long before the Center, a lot of my students used to play at NEO-sponsored shows, such as the Thursday Night market, and I got involved from there. A ton of my students have played at NEO events over the past eight years,” Steel said.

He said the Student Showcase has grown from humble beginnings at local coffee roasters into a spring and fall production at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley. All profits from the shows go to NEO.

Steel feels the organization has become so popular and has grown so quickly because it fills a much-needed outlet for kids. “It gives very positive directions and options to kids that otherwise would only be hanging out and facing poor choices.”

Statistics show that 30 percent of Nevada County students feel chronically sad or hopeless, 13 percent of high school students have attempted or seriously considered suicide, and 65 percent of middle school students report being home alone one or more times a week. Along with adult mentors, NEO partners with an advisory council consisting of schools, law enforcement, clubs, family organizations and others to provide resources for kids who might need extra support.

As the band in the next room started on a new composition, Skrukrud laughed at the continuous buzz of activity in the building.

“I think we could use a door on this office,” she said as a drummer kicked in. “We are actually thinking of expanding, but we’re not quite ready for it right now. With the increase in daily visits, it would be nice to expand or find a different building, but we haven’t found the right spot yet.”

Two and a half years after opening its doors, the NEO Youth Center is a thriving youth-driven option for Nevada County youth. What started out as an idea for small events throughout the county to help kids make healthy lifestyle choices is now an increasingly valuable asset for hundreds of youth enjoying positive direction and opportunities.
The Neo Youth Center at 139 Joerschke Drive in Grass Valley provides a safe and stimulating environment for Nevada County youth.