Salvation Army Lt. Patrick Jones envisions families and couples having fun learning to cook healthy, delicious meals on a budget inside a planned teaching kitchen.
He imagines community rooms filled with adults and children of all ages and economic backgrounds taking art, music and basketball lessons, dance classes and instruction on how to use computers, find a job or manage household finances.
But first, Jones said, he has to get people in the door at the Salvation Army’s new downtown multigenerational recreation and education center.
So far, only 61 people have monthly memberships at the Gene and Jerry Jones Family North Texas Youth Education Town, or YET, during its first six months of operation, far below the 200 that leaders anticipated and a far cry from the 450 people it eventually hopes to serve daily, Jones said.
“We’re off to a slow start. We wanted to be up and running from Day One, but we are going to get there,” Jones said. “We know we are going to have a great impact.”
Opened with much fanfare — and celebrated during its construction by more than one appearance by Dallas Cowboys and Hall of Fame great Emmitt Smith — the YET was partially funded by the National Football League as a Super Bowl XLV legacy project.
Besides providing education, recreation and a safe place for disadvantaged youth to hang out, the YET is designed to offer classes and enrichment programs for adults and high school students preparing for college, Jones said.
For months, the Salvation Army has turned to social media, made door-to-door visits at apartment complexes and hosted monthly Family Fun Night events to attract new members and find out directly from residents what services they want.
“We really want to make sure we are meeting the needs of the community,” Jones said.
And yet, interest in the YET has not been big.
Arlington City Councilman Charlie Parker suggests it may be the $30 a month individual membership fee charged by the Salvation Army, saying it simply could be too expensive for some families.
Parker also said the $30 fee shouldn’t be necessary because the YET, which is at 712 W. Abram St., received millions of dollars in funding from the NFL and the Gene and Jerry Jones Family Arlington Youth Foundation.
“The point is that kids should use the YET because they are kids. They need someplace to go after school,” Parker said. “To charge them after they’ve gotten all this money just doesn’t ring right with me.”
The Salvation Army’s Jones defended the membership fee, saying that financial assistance is available and families can receive a discounted membership rate. Some members may be asked to pay $1, $5 or whatever they can afford based on their incomes, he said.
“Thirty dollars a month is a steal for those who can afford it,” Jones said. “We didn’t want to give it away if we were doing something so great.”
Parker first questioned the membership fee when the Salvation Army asked for money for another program.
At an April 8 meeting the council was deciding how to allocate about $4.5 million in federal grants for community projects and services. The Salvation Army is seeking a $20,000 emergency shelter grant for expenses such as food and electricity costs for its homeless shelter.
Between 45 and 70 people stay at the shelter each day for up to a year while they transition from homelessness to stable housing, Jones said. The agency’s Red Kettle drive pays for much of the shelter’s $330,000 budget, but the charity has received federal funding from the city to help with operating expenses for at least 14 years.
Some of the expenses covered by the grant include case management, transportation to and from job interviews or work for the families and sometimes medical bills, Jones said.
“It is not a new thing for us. We are one of the few shelters where a family can stay together,” Jones said. “We are proud of what we do here.”
The council is expected to vote on grant awards, including the Salvation Army’s request, later this month.
Parker was the only council member to express reservations, and he cited the YET membership fee.
“That $30 a month requirement is waived for some children because of a scholarship they have, but the fact that the $30 a month is still required by the Salvation Army for kids to use the YET concerns me,” Parker said. “If they could get rid of that stipulation, I would have no problem with the allocation of the $20,000.”
Parker said he wondered whether the Gene and Jerry Jones Family Arlington Youth Foundation would continue contributing $500,000 annually to the YET as it has the past two years. The Jones family charity pledged to donate $16.5 million total over 33 years to organizations that support Arlington youth as part of its agreement with the city of Arlington for helping fund AT&T Stadium.
The Salvation Army has no expectations that it will be a regular recipient of that pledge, Jones said.
The YET did not submit an application for funding from the Jones foundation this year, a Dallas Cowboys official said.
Since 1993, the NFL has donated $1 million to establish Youth Education Towns in each city that hosts the Super Bowl, which Arlington did in 2011. Houston, for example, has two NFL YET centers, one that opened in 2006 and one that opened in 2007, that are operating by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston. Membership is $5 annually, according to their websites.
The Salvation Army in Arlington has used about $2.5 million of the $4.5 million in grants it received to build, furnish and staff the YET, Jones said. The nonprofit organization has enough money left for operating expenses for its first two years but is already setting up fundraisers, such as the upcoming MOST Amazing Race, he said. The Salvation Army has not asked the city for YET funding.
The YET in Arlington competes with other youth organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Arlington, where membership is $30 per year.
Jones said monthly membership fees contribute a small percentage of revenue to the YET’s overall budget, which is expected to be $700,000 this first year because of start-up expenses. The budget for future years is expected to be about $500,000 annually.
Jones said the Salvation Army expects at least half of the YET members, which include adults, to require financial assistance. Whatever fees are collected will go toward operating costs.
The YET features an art room, computer lab, dance studio, game room, music room, gymnasium, outdoor all-purpose field, playground and six community rooms. Future planned additions include a larger computer lab, a youth football field and a kitchen to serve meals to families who are attending classes.
“What we’ve realized is you can’t fully impact a youth unless you involve their family. We really want to get the families in here. We aren’t there yet,” Jones said. “We would love to be serving a healthy dinner each night each week so parents can do course work and the kids can do an activity. That is one of our visions.”
Jones said he is also working with area school districts to connect with homeless high school students to give them a safe place to hang out in the afternoons where they can play video games, do homework or watch television while also doing their laundry.
“What we’ve learned is that Arlington has a large youth homeless population. You don’t see it because youth don’t hang out on the corner of the street with signs,” Jones said. “They hang out on their friends’ couch for two weeks and then they go someplace else.”