When the Port Charlotte Town Center mall managers told Tom Parker that 400 middle school students hang out at the mall on Friday nights, Parker asked God for help.

From his perspective, he got it.

As the area director of Charlotte County Young Life, Parker knows he can reach many unsupervised tweens and teens looking for something positive to do on nights and weekends.

For weeks, Parker, his team and volunteers transformed one of the stores that went out of business near Fletcher Music Center into a safe place for students through a partnership with the mall.

“We painted the walls and have new tile coming next week,” he said. “We will use the building in the mornings. Then from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. we will have mentoring, homework help and tutoring for students. We may open it up with pool tables and ping-pong tables.”

Additionally, on Friday nights will be a wildlife program for middle schoolers and, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights, there will be activities for middle and high school students. Youth group nights are Wednesday.

“We are still in the process to figure out the best programming,” he said. “We can always use mentors.”

Another exciting feature at the Young Life center at the mall is an escape room designed by Lisa and Scott Gregory, owners of Escape Rooms Unlocked in North Port and Punta Gorda. Students must work together to solve a riddles, clues and puzzles using strategies to successfully “escape” from the game before the time runs out.

To celebrate the May 6 opening, chamber members from Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte and North Port are meeting at 5:30 p.m. for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Then the center opens for the teens’ first big event: A tacky prom.

“It’s not at all like a traditional prom,” Parker said. “Girls can wear hideous dresses and boys can wear powder blue suits. It can be as tacky as they want. It’s a prom for teens in Charlotte and Sarasota county schools. We expect to have about 40 or 50 teens from the Young Life in Englewood. We expect to see some Imagine School North Port students. Some may even come from Venice. It should be a great time for them all.”

Parker said the mall isn’t the only place Young Life volunteers reach students. They are at Charlotte County schools each week before the bell rings. Some stay until late in the day. Leaders pray with students, work on skill-building experiences and kids to share a friendship with them regardless of their response to the Young Life mission.

“On any given week we work with somewhere from 600 to 700 kids in the schools,” he said. “We come in contact with well over 2,000 of them. We are a positive force in students’ lives. Our leaders know these students well. We are with them in the morning sharing the word. We see them at Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings or prayer around the pole. We eat lunch with some of them. Some of us are substitutes at the schools. Others are coaches.

“We are there when the burden gets too heavy and they need someone they trust to talk to about any situation,” he said. “We are there for the good times too. We go to their games and cheer them on. We give them ice pops.”

Parker’s team created a video “You Were Made For This” featuring teens speaking about how the Young Life program impacted them. Teachers and principals also tell how Young Life is making a difference in their schools.

“The video is on our Facebook page,” he said. “It really shows who we are and what we do. We’ve had over 1,000 views. We hope to double it by the end of next month.”

One community he hopes will watch the video is Englewood. He said in order to keep the Young Life ministries operating at Lemon Bay High School, Englewood SKY Academy and L.A. Ainger Middle School, he needs $1,000 more each month.

“We have about 150 to 200 students who are regulars in the program,” he said. “Many others are impacted in Englewood. I need to connect more with that community. Good things are happening.”

This summer, about 50 students will ride horses and go carts, and eat lots of chicken and steak at summer camps in Georgia and North Florida.

“The camp is a place for teens to be teens,” Parker said. “They will play games, be outside, listen to music and we will share the word of Christ with them,” he said. “Regardless of a child’s decision to choose Jesus, we will continue to treat them the same way. We will walk along side of them, cheer them on and encourage them.”

Young Life is always looking for donations, volunteers and mentors. Church groups are also welcome to partner with Young Life.

For more information, visit Charlotte County Young Life on Facebook or call 941-456-5433.

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