What started as a monthly program in a youth pastor’s basement continues to touch kids’ lives 17 years later as a spacious youth center in downtown Chillicothe.
The CrossWord Cafe opened its doors at 947 N. Second St. in August 2001 with help from several area churches, civic leaders and community organizations. The center is patterned after a Christian coffee house concept pioneered by former youth pastor Brent Ressler, whose original monthly meetings quickly outgrew his basement.
Open year-round from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, the non-profit center is a place for kids to shoot pool, play video games or cards, get help with homework and even take free music lessons.
“I do think the kids see it as a safe place, although I don’t know that they would use that word,” said assistant director Rachael Baker-Christophel, who’s been involved with the center for 16 years.
“They’re figuring out how to manage life. It’s nice to come alongside them and see the growth and the progress they make from the time they come in as sixth-graders to when they leave as 11th- and 12th-graders,” she added.
Director John Heffron, who’s also been involved with the center nearly since it began, estimated that the youth center has impacted at least 1,000 kids over the years.
“By (December) we will probably have seen 100 different kids at the cafe this year,” said Heffron, a Caterpillar retiree. He noted that the number of kids coming to the cafe has fluctuated over the years.
“Right now we probably have fewer kids than we had in the earlier 2000s, but that’s OK. Sometimes you get to know the kids better when it’s like that,” he said.
On a recent Thursday afternoon in July, a handful of kids were hanging out at the center with Heffron and Baker-Christophel when city alderman Trish Westerman-Connor poked her head in the door and asked for volunteers to help spread mulch over a nearby garden median.
As director of the city’s Shademakers Beautification Committee, Westerman-Connor said, “The CrossWord Cafe kids always step right up to the plate to help when asked to help, and we get them Dairy
One of the first to grab a rake was 16-year-old Cam Williams, who said he started going to the Cafe when he was in sixth grade. “One of my friends told me about it, and I thought it looked interesting,” Williams said. “I like to hang out with friends here and play pool and air hockey.”
Randy Rhodes, also 16, couldn’t remember how long he’d been coming to the Cafe but thought it had been at least a year. “I come about every time they’re open if I can,” he said. “I like to play pool and cards when I’m here.”
While the mission of the center has always been to build positive relationships and give every teen in the community an opportunity to experience Christ in a non-threatening environment, Heffron said activities at the Cafe have varied over the years and are kid-driven.
“Up to about 2010 or so, we had a lot of kids coming in who were involved in music, and they liked to bring bands to the Cafe and have shows on weekends on our stage, which has lighting, a sound board and a sound booth. When bands came, they got to sign our wall, and we probably have 400 signatures on the wall around the stage area,” he said.
Kids who frequent the center currently aren’t as interested in live music, though the center does occasionally host musicians as community events and fundraisers. This fall, local musician and native Englishman Mike Cheesman will perform a concert there to benefit the center, Heffron said.
Volunteers also provide free lessons on piano, guitar and, most recently, ukulele to any kids who are interested.
“We also have tutoring available if the kids want to improve in their academics or if they’re working toward they’re GED,” Heffron said. New this year is a $1,000 scholarship eligible to Crossword Cafe kids who maintain at least a C average.
Baker-Christophel thinks the Chillicothe youth center’s philosophy of not running structured programs has helped its longevity. “We’re not about programs. It’s about relationships, and I think that’s been very helpful,” she said. “Another reason I think we’ve lasted is because it’s not funded by any one person or one organization.”
The center is funded by donations from individuals, churches and community organizations. Geared toward kids in sixth through 12th grade, the Cafe also hosts a post-graduate group that meets weekly under the leadership of 25-year-old Josh Wier, a mechanical engineer who hung out at the youth center as a teen.
“If memory serves correctly I started attending the CrossWord Cafe at the age of 13 or 14 as a part of the youth group my church held there on Sunday evenings,” Wier said. “The Cafe always had something fun to do, if it was games, music or catching up with friends.”
Wier started volunteering at the center in 2011 when a friend asked him to help fill a shift. “I keep coming back week after week to make sure there is a safe place for youth to come to share their struggles and to have fun,” he said.
About five to seven people attend the post-high school group, which targets the 18- to 25-year-old range, Wier said. “We do hold a Bible study, but we also enjoying hanging out and talking about current issues and goofy YouTube videos.”
The center currently has about 10 volunteers but could always use more, Heffron said. For more information, call Heffron at (309) 274-9492 or (309) 267-9492 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The center’s website address is www.crosswordcafe.net.
—Over 17 years, Chillicothe’s CrossWord Cafe youth center has served more than 1,000 people–