Princeton center offers ‘opportunities’ and ‘escape’ for teens, gears up for new building

Second Story Teen Center halfway to $600,000 goal for new building

Jeff VanAutreve (top) watches teenagers gather and play video games inside the Second Story Teen Center on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Princeton. Fundraising for the new building has just passed it's halfway mark.

At a time when life was stressful, Kaylee Dowda was able to find an escape by spending time at Second Story Teen Center in Princeton.

The center is a nonprofit organization that serves as a free drop-in space two nights a week for children sixth through 12th grades. The center is halfway to its $600,000 goal to construct a new building for more space.

It’s like a second family.”

—  Kaylee Dowda, Second Story Teen volunteer/attendee

Dowda, 18, said the center offers youth a space to hang out with friends while being surrounded by adults who care about them.

“I really, really enjoy going there. It’s a nice environment,” Dowda said. “It’s like a second family.”

Teens are able to take part in activities, ranging from video games, billiards, Ping-Pong, arcade games, dancing, basketball and foursquare – and always are served food. Skilled-based classes such as cooking, guitar, art classes and more are offered.

The nonprofit purchased an empty lot at 125 S. Main St., Princeton, and the plan is to start constructing the new 6,000 square foot building in spring 2024. A groundbreaking is planned in early 2024.

“Right now, we’re confined to different little areas, which takes more volunteers. As everyone knows, volunteers are hard to come by,” said Jeff VanAutreve, who started the center with his wife, Dana, in 2009. “This new space will offer close to a full-size gym, updated kitchen, and second floor separate for teaching groups.

On a busy night, there are 80 to 110 teens attending. Attendees have 26 steps to climb to get to the current center, but the new center will be on the ground level with an additional level.

“It will also open up the opportunity for more handicap accessibility,” Jeff VanAutreve said. “We have a chair lift here, but kids don’t want to get seen having to use that, so they choose not to come because of that.”

Dowda started to attending the center in seventh grade when she was new to town. She attends college at Olivet Nazarene University but volunteers at the center when she comes home.

The center “gives the children a nice, safe place to go instead of going out to the streets and possibly causing problems because they’re bored,” she said.

There are not many juveniles who are running into problems with the law in Princeton, said Police Chief Tom Kammerer. He thinks Second Story offers an outlet for kids.

“They’re able to work with these kids and help them out with some of the stuff they have going on in their homes, and I think it helps them from getting into trouble,” he said.

What can communities do to offer more for children?

Kammerer grew up in a town smaller than Princeton. When he goes back to visit, he thinks there is one person he went to high school with who still lives there – “nobody sticks around.”

“We need to really think about how we can keep some of our kids from leaving, (and) get them good jobs here and the ability to have good schools to put their kids in and make it appealing for them to want to stay where they grew up,” Kammerer said.

He acknowledged not all children will stay, but he said communities should offer opportunities for youth, which he said Second Story, Arukah Institute of Healing, the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce and police department work toward providing.

“It’s important for people to feel compelled to want to stay where they grew up,” he said.

Dowda mentioned how helpful Jeff and Dana VanAutreve have been. The center offers a college scholarship, which Dowda was a recipient of. “I actually got my car from them. There was a lady in the community that decided she was done driving, and she donated it to them, and they chose me as the recipient. I still have that car, and it’s been two years. They really offer great opportunities for kids, and they really have the best interest for them.”

The center has affected other local communities, too, by serving children who come from all over Bureau County and beyond, such as Joliet and Chicago.

How to donate to Second Story

Visit or send a check to Second Story Teen Center, 1033½ N. Main St., Princeton, IL 61356.

Youths are welcome

Second Story is a volunteer-led nonprofit 501(c)(3) providing resources and after school programs for youths sixth through 12th grades and have access to a well stocked food and clothing youth pantry. Located above Johnson’s Carpet, 1003 N. Main St., and open 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and 6:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays. There is no admission charge for youths.