Founder of Portal 2:20 Julie Burk stands behind the Teen Center’s snack/prize bar. (DHI Media/Kirsten Barnhart)
Founder of Portal 2:20 Julie Burk stands behind the Teen Center’s snack/prize bar. (DHI Media/Kirsten Barnhart)

VAN WERT – On Feb. 20, Portal 2:20 Teen Center will be celebrating two years of giving teens in the community a safe, fun place to hang out with their friends. The idea came about by Julie Burk, who wanted to give teens a comfortable place to have fun and fit in.

“A lot of it had to do with the kids I could relate with,” said Burk who noted that she wanted to create a place for kids who perhaps weren’t involved in sports or extracurricular activities. “There was this niche of kids that maybe couldn’t afford that kind of stuff or maybe weren’t interested in that kind of stuff that needed something to do. I had an idea for something different.”

Portal opened on Feb. 20, 2017, as an entertainment center which allows teens age 13 to 18 to play games, do puzzles, create art, or to just relax and hang out with their friends.

The name, Portal 2:20, is in reference to Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

In the past two years, more activities have been added to the center. In addition, the snack bar has been updated to include a prize counter where teens can turn in Portal Credits.

“We started a system called Portal Credits,” said Burk. “The kids can purchase them or parents can purchase them, and they can only be spent here.”

Burk said this system allows for a more secure transfer of money. If parents are leery of sending money with their child, they can purchase Portal Credits instead. The credits can also be earned through various tasks like helping clean up, getting good grades, and other personal responsibility actions.

Portal is open on Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-9 p.m., and on average, 10 to 15 kids attend on a given night. When there is an activity such as Nerf wars or karaoke night, that number doubles.

“One of the things that I had envisioned for this place was for it to be as comfortable as hanging out in their own bedroom,” said Burk. “This is different though, because of the volunteers. We’re more than just people that come and supervise the kids while they play and do whatever they want. We’re here to interact with them; we’re here to get to know them, and hopefully, help them with some encouragement, and if they are dealing with stuff, we can be someone to talk to.”

Portal is volunteer ran. Each volunteer must undergo a background check, a screening process, and training. When teens visit Portal, they are always supervised by a trustworthy adult.

Burk said that Portal always considers the safety of the teens and won’t open if there aren’t enough volunteers. She also said that one of the things that makes Portal special is that the volunteers want to be there and enjoy being around the teens.

She read a text she recently received from one of her volunteers.

“I started this mission to change lives; I didn’t realize that life would be mine,” read Burk. “These teens, these amazing humans, have taught me more about this world than my 30ish years of existence. I’m excited to watch them grow into amazing adults.”

“We’re a very non-judgmental place,” added Burk. “The kids come here because they know we accept them for who they are. Some of the kids that come here deal with bullying issues at school and they may deal with feelings such as not fitting in. A lot of kids come here because they feel like they do fit in.”

Burk said she has not had issues with bullying at Portal, but if there are issues between two teens, she’s found the best way to handle the situation is to talk it out.

“It’s about actively engaging them and making sure everyone has a good time,” said Burk. “Usually it comes down to talking to both parties and talking it out. I’ve been finding, the older I get, how important it is to communicate.”

Many of the teens who attend Portal learn about the center through their friends. Burk said that the goal of the center is to use entertainment to combat juvenile delinquency, and while they are not like a youth group in that there is not a set lesson to be learned each day, there is still often a lot of learning going on at the teen center.

“There is something they can take away from being here,” said Burk. “I’ve seen growth in kids where when they first started coming here maybe their manners could use some refreshing and since then all I have to do is give them a side eye.”

In addition to entertainment, teens that have missed a meal or that are hungry can receive a free Ramen noodle bowl.

Portal is free to the teens, and those who run the center do so on a volunteer basis. Portal is a non-profit and relies on donations.

“We’ve been blessed in the past with some fairly large donations,” said Burk. “We received a grant last year, but the lifeblood of this organization are the every day $5, $10, $20, $100 donations from people in the community. That helps with our day to day operations.”

Teens who visit Portal must first register to make sure that Portal staff have their information on file. Each time a teen visits Portal, they must sign in when they arrive and sign out when they leave.

“For anyone that feels called to do something in this community, it’s not going to happen overnight,” said Burk who noted that the idea for Portal came about in 2013 and it took years to open the facility. “There’s going to be bumps and snags, but you’ve just got to be persistent, especially if it’s something that God’s leading you to do. He’s going to make it happen whether you’re good at it or not.”