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Teen center director wants to pay it forward
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Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Boys and Girls Club Director Antonio Varela sits in the organization's center in downtown Moline in January.
MOLINE — Antonio Varela has been a member of the Boys and Girls Club since he was 5 or 6 years old. Now, he's 21 and director of the club's new Moline teen center, which opened last February.

While the director title seems more typical of someone older than he is, Mr. Varela said being young is a good thing when relating to teens, who often don't like being told what to do.

"I'm great with kids. I'm great with teens especially," he said. "A lot of them I know personally from outside in the neighborhood. They thought I was a great candidate for the director, and they gave me the job."

Mr. Varela said he keeps in mind that teens don't like being told what to do when he plans events.

"Every day is different," he said. "There's no set structure at the teen center because teens don't like structured things. They like to be defiant, to rebel out. I make it seem like they run the place, when I really do. But that's what the kids like. They like to feel like this is their place."

The Boys and Girls Club offers programs and space for children and teens to learn and have fun and also helps them prepare for college and careers, Mr. Varela said.

When Mr. Varela talks about his job, he seems to prefer talking about the kids or facilities more than himself and his position. He sees a lot of promise in the kids who come to the teen center, and he wants to give them a chance to be great.

"What I can give to (the teens) is the same opportunities or more that I was given through the Boys and Girls Club," Mr. Varela said. "Also, just giving them a chance to be who they want to be without feeling judged by their peers or by adults."

The teen center has an Xbox 360, a Playstation 3, Foosball, air hockey, Macintosh computers and massive high-definition TVs. It hosts teen nights with dancing and music, and food often is provided.

Although there's plenty of time for fun, Mr. Varela said the kids need to be productive for the center to be doing its part. He admits when he first started his job, he had a difficult time being the authority figure.

"Finding that balance is pretty hard because I'm mostly a fun person," Mr. Varela said. "But once I got this position, I had to learn to become that teacher part, that authority part."

Mr. Varela starts his day about 10 a.m. He comes to the center and begins planning programs for the kids when they get out of school. If he already has a program ready, he goes and visits kids at area high schools.

"So really, I'm with them throughout the day," he said. "I go to the high school and sit with them at lunch and say, 'Hey, how was your day? What are you doing this weekend?'"

Mr. Varela graduated from Moline High School in 2010 and is enrolled part time at Black Hawk College. He hasn't decided what he wants to focus on in college, but he said he knows he wants a career that involves working with young people.

He said his favorite thing about his job at the teen center is "laughing with the kids. Whether they crack a joke or whether we see something funny, just when I see them laugh I can see for a couple seconds that they're having a good time.

"Because you never know when they go home if they have a bad time. When they're laughing, you can tell they're having a good time here."











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