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Q&A: Project Oz executive director previews new Youth Education and Support Center

A digital rendering of an L-shaped building, which includes parking spaces.
Project Oz
A digital rendering of the exterior of Project Oz facilities, including the addition of the Youth Education and Support Center.

More education and support services for youth and adolescents are on the way to Bloomington-Normal by way of Project Oz.

The nonprofit is creating the Youth Education and Support Center to accommodate more community members and add more programs to its arsenal.

The City of Bloomington awarded Project Oz a $250,000 grant in June, which is partially funding the expansion. The organization has also raised about $750,000 toward a $1 million capitol campaign to pay for the project.

Project Oz Executive Director Lisa Thompson speaks to WGLT reporter Melissa Ellin about what the community can expect from the incoming resource.

Lisa Thompson
Project Oz
Project Oz Executive Director Lisa Thompson

Interview has been edited for clarity.

WGLT: [The] Youth Education and Support Center, from my understanding, is this 2,500-square-foot extension. And that is to the existing building?

Lisa Thompson: Yes, we have one location at 1105 West Front Street, and we have the ability to expand 2,500 square feet. And then we are landlocked after that, and 2,500 square feet doesn't sound like a lot to some people, but to us, it's a whole lot of space. It's definitely going to make an impact on young people, and the families, and the community, and people able to access services at our site.

And, of course, it has the name Youth Education and Support Center. But what does that really mean? What is the purpose of this going to be?

Lisa Thompson: In general, we're able to serve more kids and more families and provide opportunities for youth. They will be able to come, we'll have technology stations, so they can dock up their computers, they can do homework, they can do remote learning, they can get help from one of the counselors, job hunting, resume building — all of that in a space with a caring adult that is available to them to help navigate those pieces.

Is there a target age group for this? Who is this really going to be catered toward?

Lisa Thompson: Sure, Project Oz serves young people ages 10 through 23, and it will be catered to that entire group. Now their needs may be different. Some of our younger youth will be using it more for social and emotional skills, some of our older teens will be using it for those harder skills such as job seeking and resume building. But, in general, everybody will have access to the flexible space.

It'll also offers for our runaway and homeless youth a spot to come in and do laundry. We'll have two washers and dryers for our young people, so they'll have an opportunity to come in, get a clean change of clothes, be able to have some privacy, get a snack in our nutrition nook, meet with a counselor, do their laundry, and then we'll be there to help engage them in services, either through inviting them to come into our emergency shelter, or providing them referrals or connecting them with resources. So it'll be kind of a one-stop shop for our young people. And we're really excited at the opportunity to launch this on the west side shortly — coming soon.

Can you tell me at all what timeline might be looking like for this?

Lisa Thompson: Realistically, it'll likely happen in 2024, we would be looking at. But it's possible to happen sooner. And it also will help us — as we continue to raise funds in this public phase — get quicker to the finish line too.

This is as you said, an extension of your current Project Oz services, this is not necessarily some big, grand new thing for you. Can you tell me a why now and what is bringing this about?

Lisa Thompson: I can, so we definitely — we have been in the same building for 15 years. We've been on the west side our entire organizational history. This year is our 50th anniversary, so we're happy to have been in the community for over 50 years. But we've been at this location for 15 and the size of our programming has doubled, the size of our staff have doubled, the needs of our young people have doubled. Our community is growing and the needs [of] our young people are growing, but our building has not grown along with it. And we really feel confident that we want to stay on the west side serving the west side Community where we've been for 50 years, and in order to do that, I think expanding in our current spot to alleviate the room is really what we need.

There’s a funding page available online that says you're three-quarters of the way toward the $1 million. So you're at $750,000. Can you tell me about that funding goal and how that's going to impact any timeline?

Lisa Thompson: So we are very close. As you indicated, we're 75% of the way there. We are still looking for corporate donors, corporate sponsorship, in-kind donations and individual donations. We are at the stage that we are able to launch the project, but we really need the community's help to get us to the finish line. And we've had some great community sponsors already, and we're certainly looking forward to the community's continued support as we launch into this final end of the race.

Is there anything else that people should know about the incoming Youth Education and Support Center?

There’s a couple of ways people can donate. Certainly, they can go on our website and donate directly to the capital campaign. We also have an event coming up. It is — save the date — Sept. 29 at the Castle Theatre. It is sponsored by the Illinois Interior Design Association. And it's a dueling pianos night — if you haven't been to that, they're super fun. And it'll also be our 50th anniversary celebration and an opportunity for everybody to be together to raise funds for our organization. So if people are interested in attending an event, as well, the tickets are on sale. They're on sale on our website, there are sponsorship opportunities for the event as well.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.
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