By Ana Alexander
HOWARD LAKE, MN The Howard Lake Lions Youth and Family Center has provided the community with a safe place for kids to play and learn for 35 years, and has now opened after remodeling.
The center celebrated its remodeling with an open house, to show appreciation to the community for its support Sept. 17.
For a few volunteers and visitors at the center, the open house was especially meaningful. Not only is the center celebrating its 35th year of serving the community, but this event had a special guest.
Jason Casey has been coming to the center since he was 11 years old, and made a two-hour trip to attend the open house with his son, Ben a second generation to visit the center.
“It’s good company. I’ve been coming here for quite a long time,” Casey said. “Even when I wasn’t living in the state, when I would come visit, I still made a point to come here.”
Casey graduated from Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School, and then enlisted in the military, where he served eight years of active duty. Casey said he loves his work in the military, and plans to continue serving.
Casey started coming to the center after a friend brought him along. From then on, he was a regular at the center. According to Casey, the center always gave him something to do, and helped him stay out of trouble.
“I grew up around drugs, alcohol, and a broken life,” he said.
According to Youth Center Director Lion Cathy Rufer, Casey’s background helped him reach out to other children at the center.
“He was such a great mentor to the kids,” Rufer said. “He knew the tough side of life, and knew how to make it better for the young ones.”
Casey said Rufer and the center have always been there for him something he knew he could rely on.
“If I had an issue, I knew I could bring it to [them] and they would help me schoolwork, personal life; it didn’t matter, I felt comfortable talking with them about it,” Casey said.
“If it wasn’t for my friend bringing me here that one time, I probably would have been down the same road with the drugs,” Casey said. “Who knows where I’d be now.”
Hearing Casey talk about the center and its influence in his life brought tears to Rufer’s eyes. “He’s pretty special. We always thought so,” she said.
Lion Susan Grangroth, another volunteer at the center, was also touched.
“It really warms your heart,” Grangroth said.
As a child, Casey would often help the volunteers set up for parties, and run stations for events.
“I came to have fun, but if they needed help, I’d never deny them that, because they helped me,” Casey said.
Casey still pitches in at the center when he can; from fixing the pool table to helping volunteers set up movies, fixing problems with technology, or whatever is needed.
“Do your best. Whether you’re coming in first or coming in last, as long as you tried, that’s all that matters,” Casey said. “Strive to be the best, but you don’t have to always be the best.”
Rufer felt Casey’s statement summed up the motto of the center.
“It’s important to us that we pass that on,” Rufer said. “All we want is the opportunity to serve our community.”
There are a variety of games, movies, and activities for children to enjoy while visiting the center, including a brand new air hockey table. There also is a small library, and book donations are always accepted. The Lions plan to host beanbag and pool tournaments at the center in the future, as well. Kids are allowed to bring their own movies and music to the center, but they must receive approval by a Lions volunteer.
The Youth and Family Center is being remodeled to make more space for larger groups, and to update some of the games.
The Lions raised money for the updates and remodeling, and also received donations from the community.
“Everything you see here, with the exception of the hockey table, was all donated by someone, or some company. Without that, we wouldn’t exist,” Rufer said.” That shows you there’s a lot of support for the center.”
The building had a complete paint job, covering the walls in a bright yellow. The carpeting was ripped out, and the wood floors beneath were sanded and coated with special non-slip paint, to make sure kids would not slide or slip when tracking in rain or snow.
Rufer expressed her gratitude for the people and local businesses that helped make the center thrive. Many local businesses have donated money, food, and silent auction items.
“The cohesiveness and brotherhood of our community is far greater than a lot of people in our community may know or understand,” Rufer said. “By connecting with each other in this way, our resources will reach a broader range of homes and families.”
History of the center
Lion Curtis Levang, former Howard Lake-Waverly elementary school principal, started the Lions Youth and Family Center 35 years ago, according to Rufer. At that time, the center was in the Lion’s meeting place, the historic city hall.
“The center was created with the vision that families in our communities were needing a safe recreational place for our youth to hang out, explore friendships, and develop social skills with their peers,” Rufer said.
Now, the center is housed in the old Walker United Methodist Church building. The youth center is upstairs, while the Lions’ meeting room is downstairs.
“The emphasis was to provide a place that would help develop character, citizenship, and fairness in a drug-free environment,” Rufer said.
The Youth and Family Center today
There must be a Lion member on staff at all times while the center is open. Each volunteer has been an employee of the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School District.
“We understand different behaviors and disabilities,” Rufer said. “We know the community, we know the kids, and we were trained in continuing education.”
Volunteers are all CPR trained, and have a cell phone on them at all times in case of emergency. The center also has an evacuation plan in place, and has been checked out by the fire department.
It has been used during the week, upon special request, for after-school homework groups, birthday parties, and family celebrations.
“We’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” Rufer said. “We’re open if there’s one kid, or 25.”