Area youth find acceptance, love at Discovery Cafe

Jan. 5—Dawn Harvey, director of youth recovery services at Turning Point System of Care, said she knows what it's like to be a kid and feel the effects of issues such as peer pressure and bullying.

But Harvey grew up before the age of smartphones and social media, so if people wanted to tease her, she noted, they did it at school or on the bus and then just went home.

These days, that's not always the case, she explained.

"Kids are forced to see things that they just don't understand or know how to fully process," she said. "And peer pressure is real. The pressure to fit in and conform is real. ... The need to connect and feel important and loved is all there. And as kids are developing, they are navigating through what that means."

So where can kids go to simply be kids but also have a safe place to candidly talk about real-world issues such as cyberbullying, substance abuse or mental health?

Enter the Discovery Café, which had its official grand opening last month.

The Discovery Café is open from 3:30-6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and located at 216 W. Walnut St.

It's part of Turning Point SOC's REACH program, which works with students inside a couple of the city's middle schools and is primarily geared toward children ages 12-17, officials note.

Kristal O'Hara is Discovery Café's coordinator.

"The plan behind it and the mission really is to create a safe space for our youth that they're heavily involved in," she said. "They (youth involved in the REACH program) helped create this space. We asked them what they wanted. We wanted to just make it a fun place where they can also feel invited. Everyone is welcome here. Everyone can come.

"We're going to offer all different types of programming, classes and activities here," O'Hara added. "The goal of all that, for me, is to try to provide as much as possible to these kids. Every kid is different. Every kid has different needs. ... It's going to take a wide variety to reach every kid to be inspired in a certain way, but that's our mission is to just empower them and let them learn. Give them the tools to help support them in wherever they are."

The Discovery Café also allows children the opportunity to work with certified peer coaches and an on-site licensed therapist.

"With the peer coaching, we all have life experiences," Molly Marburger, a youth services team leader, said. "Some of us have struggled with addictions. Some of us have struggled with mental health. But we have all had that fight with a parent. We've all had that heartbreak. We've all had that bully at some point in our lives."

Marburger noted there are still some issues they would need to report to proper authorities if the situation arises, but Discovery Café and the REACH program in general are about being advocates for the children.

"We just want to be their listening ear and navigate through the hard conversations with parents and with teachers and all the other authority figures in their lives," she said. "When the kids come in, even our community-based kids, we're friends. There is no judgment. We don't judge them for their mistake. We talk with them through it."

Peer coach Khaley Hamm agreed with Marburger.

"When I was their age, I didn't even know what heroin was," Hamm said. "These kids know what heroin is. They know what fentanyl is. They know opioids, pills. They know all the drugs, and they can name them. Some of them have even experimented with them at 12 or 13. And it's sad. Some of them have siblings in prison or their parents in prison, parents in the system.

"So you have kids with instability at home who need the accountability, and that's what they come to us for," Hamm added. "We give them that accountability and stability."

For fellow peer coach Luke Abston, just knowing someone is there to listen can make a world of difference for kids dealing with their own hidden crises.

"It's just the fact that they know they're not alone," he said. "A lot of times, kids are just looking for acceptance and someone to bond with, to know they're completely cared for. And sadly, a lot of kids don't get that. So the biggest thing for me is just seeing that moment where a kid can just come in here through that door and just be a kid again."