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Boys & Girls club honors teen, expands hours

Boys   Girls Club Elg2013 Youth Year award recipient Taylor Unser (left) stands with Jodi Mart(right) interim Executive Director

Boys & Girls Club of Elgin 2013 Youth of the Year award recipient Taylor Unser (left) stands with Jodi Martin (right), interim Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Elgin, on Thursday March 14, 2013. | Katherine Peters~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 19, 2013 6:14AM

ELGIN — Taylor Unser was a shy, introverted teen — more likely to have her nose in a book and her ear buds in — than to get involved with the people around her.

That changed, said the Larkin High School junior, when she got involved with the Elgin Boys & Girls Club program at her school.

On Thursday, as the Elgin club celebrated its 20th year in Elgin, members also celebrated Unser and her willingness to give and volunteer for the organization. She was named the Marissa Martinez Youth of the Year Award winner.

Created seven years ago — a year after Marissa Martinez’s death following surgery complications — the award honors teens involved in the Boys and Girls Club. She is now eligible for consideration for a state award, the 17-year-old Unser said.

Martinez’ parents, Mario and Theresa Martinez, presented Unser with the award. Their daughter, wheelchair bound due to spina bifida, was active as a volunteer all over Elgin and with the club before her untimely death at age 26, Mario said.

The club is working on expanding what it can offer Elgin teens as well.

A total of 345 youth, ages 6 through 18, are served at the club’s seven sites — Larkin and Elgin high schools, Ellis, Kimball, Larsen and Abbott middle schools, and the club headquarters, said Jodi Martin, interim director.

Beginning March 1, services for the high school age youth also increased. From 6 to 9 p.m. weeknights, the club is now open for high school students, to give them a safe place to study, recreate, and even get a dinner meal, Martin said.

She found funding for the teen center program by cutting back on some supplies and reducing the number of field trips, Martin said. However, she felt that giving teens a safe place to be after school should be a focus of the organization.

The teen center program started March 1, and 21 area teens attended. That number rose to 41 on Wednesday night. Once the attendance hits 50 teens, she plans to reward those teens with a dance at the Elgin clubhouse, Martin said.

“That is my focus, to get teens engaged,” Martin said. She will remain with the Elgin Boys and Girls Club for just a few more weeks, when a new permanent director is named.

The teen center program is designed to help keep teens engaged in the community, and Boys and Girls Club programs, after they leave middle school, she said.

Once summer hits, plans are to move the teen center nights to Thursday through Saturday, and offer basketball in the gymnasium from 10 p.m. to midnight for teens. Transportation will be provided, Martin said, so teens would not be violating Elgin’s curfew.

Unser said she has seen the benefits of Boys and Girls Club membership for teens. She always felt different from her peers, and wasn’t good at interacting with others, Unser said.

When she was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome — a mild form of autism that makes it harder for her to pick up on social clues — that separation finally made sense, she said.

She signed up for the Club Larkin program on the first day it started, but it still took her about two months to “feel like I belonged to something,” Unser said.

“I trusted the staff and members and felt safe being myself and opening up about my struggles and personal issues,” she said.

“Club Larkin opened new doors for my social and mental well-being,” Unser said.

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