by Blake Herzog • Photo courtesy of The Launch Pad Teen Center
The Launch Pad, a Prescott teen center providing social and academic support for students in seventh through 12th grade, sees a leader in every youth who walks through its doors.
That vision originates with Founder and Director Courtney Osterfelt, who’s been organizing annual Women’s Empowerment Breakthrough (WEB) conferences for up to 70 teen girls at a time on Mingus Mountain since 2003.
“We believe everybody is a leader, and we tell all of our teens that from the moment they walk in,” she says. Even if some of the teens are too shy to speak out, Osterfelt tells them they can still lead by example.
When they’re ready for the next step, she says, “We’re going to help you make the next step.”
Osterfelt was convinced Prescott teenagers were looking for more leadership opportunities in part by feedback from girls who attended the WEB conferences.
“I kept hearing from our teenage girls that we needed a teen center or we need more, like my brothers need something, my cousins need something. Can you offer the WEB conference for them? Every weekend? They just wanted more and were constantly asking for more,” Osterfelt says.
This spurred her to lead a grassroots group to open a teen center in 2013, funded by a $13,000 inheritance from her grandmother and $300 the group had raised selling tickets to a Lumineers concert.
The Launch Pad quickly expanded and so did its leadership opportunities for youth. Teens make up half the governing board, serve on a teen advisory board, lead daily circle discussions, take charge of making sure chores get done and lead new programs.
All this is done while The Launch Pad serves the typical functions of a teen center with clubs and programs mostly held from 3 to 6 p.m. — between the end of the school day and the time when most working parents get home for the evening. The teen center usually serves about 40 students per day.
Teens can drop in to get homework help through academic mentorship from other teens, do art projects, play with a band, learn “life hacks” and workforce skills and take part in adventure-based programming.
All of this activity combines with a laid-back atmosphere to make it easier for many kids to make social connections, Osterfelt says.
“The Launch Pad is this kind of neutral space. It’s not as overwhelming or daunting as school when the hallways are really busy and there’s definitely a pecking order of who’s popular and who’s not,” she says.
“At The Launch Pad when teens walk in, they are all starting on the same playing field, making it much easier for them to make friends. We have some teens who attend that are on the spectrum and because The Launch Pad is such a welcoming space it is much easier for them to learn important social skills.”
The center does charge activity fees, but scholarships are available for students in need. The majority of participating teens come from lower-income families who wouldn’t normally have access to these kinds of resources. Some students do come from higher-income families and are looking for a place more conducive to making friends, or to have different leadership opportunities than they can get at their school.
Members participate in community-based initiatives, many of them formed and led by youth. The latest example is “Better Together,” on which The Launch Pad is collaborating with the City of Prescott, local schools in Prescott and Prescott Valley and others on a campaign to encourage more civility and discussion in a community dealing with ideological tensions like those seen in the rest of the country.
“It’s a program to address some of the adversity in town, some of which has been directed at teens and a lot of it about lack of respect for differences. And the teens really felt like we need to do something to help everybody feel like they have a seat at the table,” she says.
Some 60 teens have volunteered to participate in “Better Together.” During October and November they received online training in such areas as how to de-escalate conflict, how to hold difficult conversations and how to react when people are getting too defensive.
At the end of November the teenagers began leading those conversations with their peers as part of a hybrid online, in-person campaign expected to reach up to 1,500 students.
The Better Together event took place on 11/23 and served several hundred teens, follow up programs continuing the learning from Better Together will be happening throughout the school year, involving all area high schools, and reaching over 1,000 youth.
The Launch Pad also offers weekend programming on everything from workforce skills to outdoor camping adventures, including the WEB conferences that originated as Osterfelt’s senior project at Prescott College. These programs expand its reach to well over 1,000 students.
The Launch Pad’s official home is in the former Prescott College admissions building at 302 Grove St., which crams a welcome room, computer lab, game room, art room, kitchen and offices into a 1,100-square-foot space.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, most activities have been shifted to a warehouse it owns at 464 Sixth St., which will be remodeled into a new home (hopefully within two years) for The Launch Pad. It was brought into service early to make social distancing possible, and has been dubbed “Houston,” after NASA’s home city.
Daily participation levels have dropped some since the pandemic, with only about 10 students taking advantage of the distance learning space available during school hours for those who can’t stay alone at home during the day or need help with online learning concepts.
The warehouse ultimately will be expanded to 5,600 square feet with the addition of a mezzanine level. It will house a full-size art studio, academic mentorship space for one-on-one and small group meetings, game and music rooms, a stage for music performance and a nonprofit coffeehouse where teens can earn money and develop work experience.
The Launch Pad’s success is building upon itself as the organization gets enough experience and results to its name to qualify for grants, the annual budget blossoming to $300,000 this year. It has three full-time staffers, including Osterfelt, and six part-timers.
It’s laid the groundwork for hundreds of teens to launch their adult lives, some of whom have come back to volunteer on their spring breaks. The warehouse has provided practice and performance space for several student bands, most notably Telluride Folk Festival winners Sugar and the Mint.
“I would argue every teen could benefit from something at The Launch Pad, whether it’s our workforce development program, our teen advisory council, being on the board of directors, or coming in for a drop-in or learning to play an instrument or going on a hike with us. There’s something here for every teen,” Osterfelt says.
For more information on The Launch Pad, including enrollment and how to donate or volunteer, visit www.thelaunchpadteencenter.org or call 928-227-0785.