Youth Development Center remains relevant

Regina O'Brien, executive director of Winchester Youth Development Center, tidies a pair of Christmas trees decorated for sale as part of their holiday fundraiser. Rich Cooley/Daily

During the past two decades, tens of thousands of middle and high school students from Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties have participated in the programs and facilities at Winchester’s Youth Development Center (YDC).

It’s a beacon for diverse, eclectic activities that currently includes Spanish language classes, non-contact boxing for people with Parkinson’s disease, a regular Sunday church service, a daily classroom for a school and basketball practice for two high schools.

More than 50 percent of area middle and high school students from the city and Frederick and Clarke counties participate in YDC programs, according to Executive Director Regina O’Brien.

“We are a safe haven,” said the hands-on, affable, no-nonsense O’Brien. She has been the only full-time employee of the YDC ever since the Gerald F. Smith Activity Building was dedicated in December 1995 and hosted its first high school dance the following month.

Mike Lindsay, YDC chairman of the 22-member board, said O’Brien is the heart and soul of the organization.

“A lot of the program and activities are because of her ideas and execution of those ideas,” he said.

With an annual budget of $300,000 and no fixed source of income, the YDC has to survive on program fees and yearly financial contributions from individuals, business leaders and corporations.

The center’s walls are adorned with appreciation plaques celebrating gifts from individuals and corporations, including one naming more than 375 original business and individual contributors.

“Fundraising has become more of a challenge since the recession,” said Lindsay. “A lot of traditional sources have dried up and forced us to enlarge our net and come up with new ideas for fundraising.”

In his second year as chairman, Lindsay said he believes there is no loss of interest in the center, although with the advent of the digital age, “It is always a challenge to stay relevant,” he said.

‘We have an ongoing mission to do fundraising and keep everything going, keeping everything bright and clean,” said O’Brien.

Fundraising is omnipresent with a Festival of Trees today and Sunday when artificial trees, wreaths and centerpieces are to be sold. A fundraising Fourth Apple Capital Jingle Bell 5K and half-mile Fun Run is set for Dec. 19.

April Cook, co-leader of Girl Scout Troop 4390, of Winchester, recently dropped off a donated artificial Christmas tree decorated by the troop’s second through fifth graders, who, she said, “Wanted to give back to the community.”

The handicapped accessible 22,000 square feet in the activity center and the Dave and Kathy Holiday Annex includes two gyms, two snack bars with kitchens, a game room, meeting rooms, a 150-seat theater, two computer/TV lounges and offices.

It often buzzes with activity.

Montana Kephart, 15, and Noah Lowe, 17, both students at Legacy Christian Academy, practiced on the smaller of the two basketball courts on a recent weekend.

“I like it here, the basketball floors are really nice and kept clean,” said Kephart. “They are not slippery.”

“Our school doesn’t have a gym, so this is great for us,” said Lowe.

The same weekend, Darci Rampino, 26, a fourth grade teacher in Frederick County, was helping high school students with special needs socialize and have fun as part of Adventure Beyond.

“This is a fantastic place with a gym and lots of weekend events,” she said. “It’s just a great facility as a whole.”

And on the regulation basketball court, Lizzie Osborne, 12, who plays shooting guard for Front Royal’s St. John’s Catholic Church, was practicing her jump shot with Eric Green of Eric Green’s Athletics.

“It’s awesome here,” said Osborne who loves the opportunity to use the YDC “so I can get better.”

As part of the YDC’s innovative business acumen, Green has leased the gym annually for 13 years to train athletes and the YDC uses it when he doesn’t.

YDC facilities are free for school events and anyone can rent space for a birthday party, reunion, reception, baby shower, meetings and more. It is staffed 12 hours a day.

“We will host anyone, within reason,” said O’Brien, a New York native who holds a master’s degree in education from Columbia University and was a teacher and school administrator before coming to the YDC.

When she arrived, the YDC was three buildings on Shawnee Drive across for the now Trex Company housing several nonprofits helping young people, created as the brainchild of Tom and Sheila Baker.

The Bakers founded Special Love, one of the nonprofits, to help children and families suffering from cancer after their daughter died from lymphoma. Later, they donated their home and 3 acres of land to jump-start YDC.

“It’s a unique concept,” said O’Brien since the nonprofits don’t pay rent. The YDC maintains the grounds and does major repairs while the nonprofits pay utilities and do small repairs.

Five years after its creation, following a contiguous 3-acre donation by the O’Sullivan Corporation and a successful $1.5 million campaign, the YDC activity center was built, followed in 2006 by the $1.6 million annex.

From the beginning, a code of conduct was written by students and “We have had very few problems over the past 20 years,” said O’Brien.

“We respect them, provide dignity for what they do and understand they may not yet have the maturity to act appropriately at all times,” she said.

“If they swear, we don’t throw them out but say we don’t do that here. They say they’re sorry and life goes on,” she added. “We take pride in having good will. We are kind and generous to those we work with and we understand adolescents.”

A continuing challenge is getting students to the activity center when school ends, since often both parents work and the kids have nowhere to go.

“It’s tough for kids to get here in the afternoon,” said O’Brien.

“We are working on it.”

O’Brien said she feels the YDC is “totally plugged into the community. We have an outstanding board of directors and a (eight member) honorary board and through them a great relationship with the city and county.”

Today, the YDC consists of four brick buildings that provide space for Big Brother, Big Sisters; Boy Scouts of America; Child Advocacy Network; ARC of Northern Shenandoah Valley; Shawnee Girl Scouts; Clean Inc.; Special Love Inc. and Young Life.

Tom Crosby is a freelance writer and former communications director for AAA Carolinas. Contact him at



Youth Development Center
Rules of Conduct

No disrespect of other members or YDC staff or volunteers.

No drugs, alcohol or related paraphilia.

No excessive display of affection.

No loitering anywhere on the YDC’s campus

No vandalism, fighting, use of profanity nor weapons possession is permitted.

Upon admission to the facility, members may not leave an activity and return the same evening.