Friday night: for many young people, a time to relax or have fun, to go out or hang with friends. And for many, an anxious time: a time to feel left out, out of place, bored or alone. Not every teen looks forward to the weekend.
But thanks to places like the Youth Warehouse, a community center in Hopewell that is open every Friday from 7 to 10 p.m., some disenfranchised kids in the area do have a place to go where they feel welcomed, where they can feel free to be themselves.
The Youth Warehouse was founded in 2006 by the Pennington AG Church. Frank Lovero, the student ministries pastor at Pennington AG for the past year and a half, was a senior in high school when church leaders began the program. Today, the Youth Warehouse is Lovero’s charge, and in recent months he’s been getting the word out about a program he is passionate about.
“The goal of the Youth Warehouse is to create a safe place where any teen can come and be welcomed,” said Lovero, a Hopewell native. “We believe that every student has value and purpose. The Youth Warehouse exists to help them find that and begin to live that out.”
The Youth Warehouse isn’t much to look at from the outside — a low, blocky box of a building on Reed Road that it shares with a computer repair business, party planners and a commercial building product supplier. The Warehouse itself is a large, high-ceilinged space with a basketball hoop and a corner stage on which stands a large and mysterious board with a hole cut out of the center. There’s a snack bar and, up the stairs, a loft with places to sit and talk and gaming systems to play like Playstation 4 and Wii U.
The Warehouse is open to all kids in grades 6 through 12. Many are from Hopewell and Pennington, but there are also many from neighboring towns who are regulars. There are something like 50 kids who regularly attend throughout the year, but on any given Friday a good crowd is around 30 kids.
Anytime between 7 and 8:15 on a typical Friday night — or even a little earlier, Lovero says — kids can go hang out with their friends. They can play video games, basketball, table tennis or a variety of other games, and in warm weather they’ll often go out behind the building where there is a wide grassy area perfect for Frisbee.
Activities are largely teen-led. At 8:15, one of the student leaders brings everyone together by the stage, where any first-time visitors are welcomed into the fold. In many cases, newcomers have been invited by friends who also go to the Warehouse. It’s at this time that the mysterious board with the hole in its center is explained: first-timers are invited to try to throw a tennis ball through the opening, which is slightly larger than the ball. If they can do it, they win $100.
“The first time I saw it, I said there’s no way anyone is getting a ball through there,” Lovero laughed. “But we’ve actually had a few people do it recently.”
After the welcomes there are usually group games, also student led, with all attendees encouraged to participate. Then at 9 there will be a stage game, often inspired by Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show games such as Lip Sync Battle or Box of Lies. Nights end with 10-minute talks from Lovero or an adult leader on issues that teens face in their lives, such as family, friendship, service and communication.
One of the best parts of doing what he does, Lovero said, is seeing teens walk in unsure of themselves, unsure of what they like, and seeing them over time become more confident in who they are. “The teenage years are hard, and with social media, it’s easier than ever for these teens to isolate themselves,” he said. “We give teenagers a chance to interact and have fun with people their age in a safe place.”
The Warehouse benefits from a team of adult leaders, including Lovero’s sister Angela, who give their time to support and mentor the teens. Whether they are sports enthusiasts or devoted readers, school psychologists or scientists who work in an insect laboratory, they all want to share their experiences and make a difference in kids’ lives, Lovero said.
Lovero, 28, grew up on his family’s farm on Pennington-Harbourton Road, near the Ewing border. His mother, Effie, is accounting manager at Pennington AG, where she is a long-time member. Father Frank Sr. had a long career in construction and building management. Frank Jr. has two siblings: Angela, 31, who still lives in the area and is an adult leader at the Youth Warehouse,, and Danny, 26, who lives in Canada. All three attended Hopewell Valley Central High School.
Lovero graduated from the University of Valley Forge, where he played baseball. Before becoming student ministries pastor with Pennington AG, Lovero was a part-time pastor at Lifetree Community Church in Robbinsville, and he has also worked for the Robbinsville Township Recreation Department. In addition to his duties with the church, Lovero is head junior varsity baseball coach at HVCHS and does landscaping work as well.
Lovero is a man of faith, and spirituality is an element of those 10-minute talks toward the end of each Friday night. But he says in his role as a youth pastor, he is less of an evangelist than simply someone who is looking for any way to reach kids that he can.
To try to give an example of his pastoral approach, Lovero shared a story from his own youth. After high school, he enrolled at Rutgers University for landscape architecture and engineering, but it didn’t feel quite right, he said.
“But it was what I told myself I should do. One day I went to my youth group leader, and he said to ask God what I should do,” he said.
“I started to feel like I should be working with teens. When I told my Dad, he said he kind of had a feeling. I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ And he said, ‘It’s something you had to figure out for yourself.’”
For kids who are looking more to religion for answers, the Youth Warehouse also hosts more traditional church youth group-style on Wednesday evenings. “It’s the same thing — we want them to be themselves,” Lovero said. “We run small groups in which we allow teens to discuss issues that they face in a safe environment. It’s also a place where we want them to be able to ask questions, like “Who is Jesus?”
Once a month, Youth Warehouse leaders organize a fun field trip, and there’s also an annual summer overnight camp-out at the Lovero family farm. The Warehouse also partners with local organizations like Mercer Street Friends and The One Project, encouraging kids to join in and do community service.
“We believe that allowing them to see serving and being involved in the community helps them to understand that the world is bigger than them,” Lovero said. “Serving alongside other people also works to help them develop relationships.”
With attendance on the rise, Lovero has reason to think about the future of the Warehouse. The current space is functional, but lacks certain amenities. If they start to reach the occupancy limit of 50 on a regular basis, they will have no choice but to look for a new home.
“Long term, we would love to see us outgrow the space we are in,” Lovero said. “A huge dream would be a location with a full gym, space for tutors and counseling. A teen center where teens can hang out and eat anytime. It would be a safe environment where the teens in the community could come daily.”
The Youth Warehouse is located at 1580 Reed Road in Hopewell.