When Bon Air Southampton Youth, Inc. asked me to be their “youth adviser” for the neighborhood youth center on Richmond’s southside, I accepted the position with no little hesitation. I had very limited youth ministry experience. Sure, my weekly radio program was somewhat of a hit, and I had many invitations to speak at local churches. And I had done a youth ministry internship the previous summer in Dunedin, Florida, working with children and teens in a daily setting. But I had no formal “training.”

And the kids who sat across the room from me on that first night in the old house weren’t church teens. To me they were a little scary. Except for those late-1960s sideburns, I was clean-cut. They had hair, lots of it. I was dressed in khakis and a dress shirt, though I had the sense not to wear a tie that night. They were dressed in the standard uniform of hippies: tie-dyed tops, worn-out jeans…a raggedy band to be sure. I was playing top 40 on the radio, and they were Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock (before Woodstock!). I had never had a cigarette, and their pockets bulged with Marlboro packs. Need I go on? Culture/counter-culture. Of course, we sat opposite one another.

The BASY, Inc. adult leadership, made up of some parents and church folk, introduced me and the kids introduced themselves: Mike, Liz, Susan, Robert, Eddy, John, Mary Ellen, Eric, another John, another Eric…  I tried my best to look confident, and friendly, and open to their desire to turn the old house into a place for recreation, music, conversation, and just hanging out. A place with very limited rules and very little adult intrusion.

As I’ve written previously, there were to be three “boards” for this place: adult advisers, youth professionals, and the youth themselves. Wisely, the adults asked the youth to set their own rules for the management and conduct of the center. Plus, we needed a name for the place. BASY Inc. didn’t have a ring to it. After hearing from the teenagers what dreams they had for the house, I sat with them as they took on their main assignment: the rules. They would paint a sign listing the rules and hang the sign on the front porch of the Overby House (as it had been known since it anchored a long-gone farmstead). Though four decades have passed, I do remember the rules well: 1) Minimum age:14 (no upper limit was set, thinking that those “too old” would know it); 2) smoking in designated areas only (it was, after all, an old house, so smoking was limited to one room on each floor); 3) no alcohol or other drugs allowed on the premises.  (The “other drugs” reference was their message to parents: if you drink, you use drugs.)

That was it. Three rules. The hours may have been posted on that big sign, but they would change often in the coming months. Later more than one adult adviser (they weren’t called chaperons!) asked about adding a rule about “language,” but the kids wanted freedom of expression in their own house. We would eventually tell adult volunteers that if they couldn’t stand the language, maybe they would be happier volunteering elsewhere. (Because the house was on church property and supported largely by neighborhood churches, the teens did self-censor “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”)

One more thing for this entry. How I was won over. Admittedly, I may not have been the best choice for this youth adviser job. That first night my feeling was kin to that of a lamb being led to the slaughter. I also admit that I questioned whether these teenagers had what it took to run their own house, to do the work that had to be done to convert a building  from one purpose to another, that is, to clean it up, fix cracked plaster, Spackle, sand, and paint, and  move furniture in. The next Saturday morning, they won me over with their enthusiastic work ethic. I think it was watching the kids up on ladders scooping out years of yukky debris from the roof gutters that convinced me that these kids wanted this place to happen.

With adult help, they learned how to apply Spackle to gaping cracks in old walls. They painted, cleaned bathrooms, and hauled furnishings. They worked hard. For hippies. (I’m smiling as I write that.) A major benefit of having the kids do the work on the walls: if you’ve fixed the cracks  and applied the paint yourself, you won’t tolerate graffiti or vandalism by other youth who lack ownership in the work.

Next: how the place got its name. It looked nothing like a “Spanish Castle.”

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