Gaming nights at Milton-Freewater school reloaded

In their third year, the biweekly gatherings draw dozens of youths.

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MF After Hours club meets every other Friday night in a former cafeteria at Central Middle School in Milton-Freewater. From a grant the kids get to use/play with some pretty high-power video games, foosball and a karaoke game. Christian Gonzales eyes his opponent in the next comfy chair.

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After Hours club meets every other Friday night in a former cafeteria at Central Middle School in Milton-Freewater. From a grant the kids get to use/play with some pretty high-power video games, foosball and competition karaoke.

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MF After Hours club meets every other Friday night in a former cafeteria at Central Middle School in Milton-Freewater. From a grant the kids get to play with some pretty high-powered video games. Chris Keough here is into video skiing.

MILTON-FREEWATER -- With the lights off in the Central Middle School cafeteria, the only illumination came from the glow of 10 projection screens, and one massive-size one, covering most of the walls.

On each screen blazed a different action-filled video game where lounging teens and preteens battled through a variety of challenges.

So while a group of boys tackled precipitous roads with steering wheel controllers, a pair worked to knock down a building as iconic monsters. From the biggest screen, reaching nearly from floor to ceiling, virtual guitarists furiously tackled their favorite rock tunes with remote instruments.

It's Friday night at Central, and the most recent "Loud and Clear Interaction" night has drawn well over 50 youths. Geared to serve middle-school students, the program transforms the school every other week into a spacious gaming retreat where teens and preteens can socialize, snack, and hang out while enjoying one of the more universal teen activities.

Hanging out is only aided by the addition of bean bags, sporty recliners, and area rugs that define each gaming station and turning it into a virtual living room. The LCI was established two years ago by Mike Odman, who at the time was program coordinator for Central Cougars Learning Center, an after-school program administered by the Milton-Freewater Unified School District. Through a grant, Odman brought fresh paint and new flooring to the Central cafeteria, and secured 10 gaming systems, equipment, games and the furniture.

Despite a strong start initially, the program saw some uncertainty last year. But as it enters it's third year at the school, it appears recharged.

Brenda Thomas, a seventh-grade teacher at Central, said as a mother, she was initially skeptical when she heard the program would bring video games to the school.

"At first I thought, they spent the money on video games?" she said. Her skepticism has since washed away, however, given the positive response by students. She also sees the benefit of offering them a place where they can socialize and interact through a medium they all grasp.

"I'm just so pleased for them," she said.

With most of the initial grant money gone, the LCI is for now persevering. It costs the students $3 to get in, and the program also operates a snack bar that brings in some more cash. Those contributions are keeping the program self-supporting. The program got an added boost last week, with the School Board securing the program a grant of about $8,150.

The money then goes to cover costs like maintenance and replacement. Wireless controllers need batteries, for example; game discs can scratch or crack; or the systems, which include several Wiis XBOX 360s and PlayStation 3s, may eventually need to be replaced.

In the band area, a virtual drum set was being held together with masking tape where one drum pad had come apart from the rest of the base.

"With all the technology, it takes a lot of money to keep it going," said Cody King, a sixth-grade teacher who was volunteering for the night.

The nights are averaging about 70 youths, which Central Principal Bruce Neil said is a healthy turnout. The school is also hosting the events every other week, rather than each Friday as originally launched, to keep the youths from getting bored with the games.

There's also some traditional games, with four foosball tables in the middle of the space that were also popular.

Austin Cousineau, 13, had been walking through the room with a group of friends, having arrived early to help set up for the night. The events typically run from 5-8 p.m.

Cousineau said part of the appeal of the LCI was that it offered something different from just playing or hanging out at home.

"I think it's pretty cool," he said. He would like to see more game systems eventually added.

"Sometimes you have to wait quite a while," he said. Cousineau eventually joined a game of MarioKart, a racing game for the Nintendo Wii system.

Sitting beside two friends, Mindy Harmon, 12, had just finished signing along to music through a karaoke-type game.

Although only her second time at the LCI, she gave it a thumbs up.

"I like just being with my friends and stuff," she said. And she didn't mind being in school on a Friday night.

"I don't feel like I'm in school," she said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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