The smell of popcorn wafted through the room above Buckley’s Irish Pub as ping-pong balls whizzed around at the hands of two teenage boys.
Others cheered them on from a nearby couch, or ran to the whiteboard hanging on the wall to update the score.
They were at the “drop-in lounge,” an informal program for teens run by the Moriches Community Center in the space it rents above the Center Moriches pub. When asked what they would be doing otherwise, all five boys present said the same thing: “Playing Xbox.”
Kathleen Johnson, co-executive director of the center, smiled at their answer, but 12 years ago when she and a group of concerned citizens started the center, it was because they were trying to avoid something much more serious.
“There was nothing to do other than what the school was offering and nowhere to go,” said Johnson, 51, of Center Moriches. “We were seeing kids hanging out in parking lots, at the gas station, and an increase in drug use and criminal mischief.”
What started as a simple idea to create a safe haven for teens has morphed into something much bigger. Even without its own permanent space, the center offers a variety of programming, including a drug prevention coalition, open recreation nights, summer camps, theater programs and community outreach.
Most activities not suitable for the small, cozy space above Buckley’s take place at one of the schools.
“We’re always growing,” said co-executive director Anthony Parlato, who recently got the kids involved in a special-needs basketball league with residents from Independent Group Home Living, Inc., which provides residential and other services for people with developmental disabilities.
Matt Argyropoulos, 15, of Center Moriches, was at the drop-in lounge with his younger brother, Jake, 13, on Tuesday.
“We hang out, play ping-pong, eat food,” said Jake Argyropoulos, adding that he, his brother and his friends have all also been involved in the theater group — something they never thought they’d do.
“The best part of the year is definitely Christmastime,” Matt Argyropoulos said, referring to the center’s holiday outreach program, which last year donated toys and food to dozens of local families.
Johnson said the center has grown beyond her imagination — they see about 200 kids a week throughout their programs, and have also been able to hire students to help work some of their programming — and it’s all done on a shoestring budget. Last year, the group lost funding from the Town of Brookhaven, and this year expects to lose funding from Suffolk County.
But they have great support from the community and are always applying to grants, Johnson said. They are recipients of an ongoing grant from the Knapp-Swezey Foundation, which allows them to pay their $1,400 rent each month, and are currently in the running for a Chase Community Giving Grant, for which online voting ends today at midnight.
“I think we’ve far exceeded our goals,” Parlato said. “People can’t believe what we’ve done for what we have.”
Parlato said with more resources, he’d like it to become a “real” community center that serves more facets of the population, like the elderly and the disabled, and of course, have their own building.
Johnson said there was an initial push to build a center on the Center Moriches School District property, but when the recession started, they decided it wasn’t the right time to raise funds for that kind of project.
“It’s always in the back of our minds,” she said, but she agreed the center has been able to achieve a great amount without it.
“There’s a lot more for kids to do,” she said. “There are still kids who choose poor options, but between today and 12 years ago, this is a very different community.”