FORT DRUM, N.Y. (May 3, 2022) -- A new club is taking root at Fort Drum where military teens can be themselves, make friends and have a fun, safe environment where they know they belong.
It is called Club Beyond, a non-profit, non-federal ecumenical outreach program that offers activities and special events, service projects and summer camp opportunities for sixth- to 12th-grade teenagers.
Jen Brace, Club Beyond community director at Fort Drum, said that the program helps to foster a sense of belonging among teens and provides them with mentorship from an adult support team and volunteers.
“That moment when a teen reaches out to one of us and says ‘Hey, I need to talk with you’ – that’s what we want,” she said. “We want them to know there is always someone they can talk to when they are having a hard time. That’s what we are really about. We can have these events that teens can come to and have fun, but we want to go further than that.”
The Fort Drum chapter recently celebrated their first big event on April 2, with a “Neon Nerf” war at Po Valley Chapel.
“The idea was to have these squad wars with Nerf guns, with all of the lights off except for a bunch of neon glow sticks,” Brace said. “There were all these bunkers and things to make them feel like they were in a video game, and the kids ended up loving it. I had no idea they would enjoy playing Nerf as much as they did. It was just a fun night.”
Amanda Zimmerman, a Fort Drum Family Advocacy Program educator, said that her son raved about the event when he came home.
“An orchestrated Nerf war is a dream to a lot of kids, and my teenager is one of the them,” she said. “He was so excited to be able to live out a childhood dream all while meeting new teens in a ‘super chill’ setting. He loved interacting with other kids with no pressure, and he has made quite a few friends already.”
Army life can be challenging for youths – moving from one place to the next every few years, and adjusting to a new neighborhood, school and life experiences.
“Our goal is to encourage resiliency among teens in just about everything that military life entails,” Brace said. “One of the biggest things we hear from our teens is that as soon as they make friends, they have to leave them. That is hard to do, and in some cases it causes teens to have walls built up.”
She said that Club Beyond gives teens a place to express their feelings and concerns with others who are familiar with or have experienced similar situations.
“Club Beyond focuses specifically on providing that safe space where they can share those experiences and be comfortable talking about it,” Brace said. “We try to create a special environment where vulnerability is encouraged.”
Club Beyond launched in 1980 and can be found at dozens of military installations worldwide. While the Fort Drum chapter is still in its infancy, Brace said that she sees the impact it is having on the youth community.
“The program has grown amazingly,” she said. “Like anything new, at first it’s about getting to know people, developing name recognition – which we are always going to be working on – and building teams.”
The adult support team and the volunteer team are crucial to the program.
“Building those teams is very important because they do so much, and it takes time to train them,” she said. “This isn’t something that they just show up to. They really dedicate a lot of their time to this.”
Brace was at the “Coffee Connections” meeting at the Family Resource Center, talking about Club Beyond, when Zimmerman told the group about what her son thought about the event.
“We do it all for the teens, so when you hear from them that they had a fun time, it absolutely means everything to us,” Brace said. “It couldn’t have happened at that level without all of our volunteers who came up with ideas, and helped plan and set it all up.”
She said that the teens are encouraged to suggest activities for future gatherings.
“Somebody said they wanted a game night, so we had one last Tuesday,” Brace said. “Any sort of idea they have, we want to hear them and see how we can implement as many as possible.”
Molly Kate Cottle is a Fort Drum teen who has enjoyed how Club Beyond is bringing her community together.
“I get to talk with my friends and we always have fun with the themes Mrs. Jen has planned,” she said. “Because of Mrs. Jen and the team’s dedication to Club Beyond, Fort Drum middle and high schoolers have an opportunity for fun with a good message!”
Roughly 50 teens have become active in Club Beyond so far. To call them “members” wouldn’t be accurate since membership is not required and teens don’t have to attend every event. And while the program offers faith-based activities, Brace said that it extends to people of all religions and there is no pressure to participate.
“Some people hear the word ‘club’ and they think there will be dues or they have to become a member,” she said. “And they hear ‘faith-based’ and they think they have to attend church or follow some sort of religious background. This is not the case at all. We are extremely welcoming of all teens, of all backgrounds regardless of what they believe in. We have all kinds of events to make everyone feel welcome.”
Brace said that the summer camps offered through Club Beyond are wildly popular.
“They are designed to be the best week of your life – everything from the food, the outdoor and indoor activities, the world-class speakers – kids come back from camp and their lives have truly changed,” she said. “It is a week not to miss, and we are excited to be able to offer them.”
The Club Beyond team is reaching out to new community members at Fort Drum, and Brace encourages teens to learn more about what the program has to offer.
“Club Beyond is perfect for teens looking for community,” she said, “but also to find genuine relationships in that community while having fun experiences. If you are looking for something more out of your time here at Fort Drum, we want to provide that to you.”