Alachua woman opens teen-outreach community center

By Melissa Garcia - July 18, 2005

D.J. Chandler started running away from home when she was only 12 years old.

Her father was an alcoholic, her mother had little time for her, and there was no one in the school or community who would help her.

Chandler's experiences would later push her to improve her life and the lives of others.

When she dropped out of school at age 16, she left home with a box of towels, sheets, an old couch, and a black and white TV and got an apartment with money she had saved from working as a waitress.

Despite her circumstances, Chandler, now 48, went to community college, earned a doctorate in education, became an assistant professor, worked with special education teenagers and even traveled to Africa.

Now, she has dedicated herself to helping troubled teens overcome the struggles she once faced by founding the Chimera Center, a nonprofit community center in Alachua.

The center held its open house Sunday, giving curious guests a chance to ask questions about programs, socialize over snacks and desserts and preview its computer gaming room.

"I wanted a place where people would walk in and say, 'This place has a lot of class, and I want to stay here and explore the world through here,'" Chandler said.

Short walls that were once office cubicles were painted dark green, maroon and yellow to liven up the room. Colorful abstract paintings, rugs and vases garnished the two barstool areas, open kitchen and medium-sized dining table.

Chandler, who has worked with other public recreation centers in the past, said she wanted the room to be warm and homelike for both boys and girls of various ages.

Operating in partnership with Chimera Planet, Inc., the center plans to offer tutoring services and computer training for young adults along with movies, video games, computer games and dances on Friday nights, she said.

Chandler's urge to educate youth and love for computers and dancing spurred the idea for the multipurpose community center, she said.

So far, Chandler said she has spent approximately $30,000 to make her dream a reality.

"It's like full circle for me. I'm at peace with myself and my life, and I've worked really hard for that," Chandler said. "My life is dedicated to teenagers."

J.P. Rincon, manager and Chimera board member, said he did not expect many people to come to the open house since it was not well advertised.

However, families with children and teenagers trickled through the door for the rest of the afternoon, commenting on how beautiful and welcoming the center turned out to be.

"It's pretty much a hang out place for teens. We want them to feel comfortable coming here instead of going to the streets and finding nothing," Rincon said, setting up to deejay for the night.

He expects the dances to gradually attract more local youth, since parents will feel comfortable letting their children go somewhere with clean music and constant adult supervision.

Eighteen-year-old Willie Rushig, of Alachua, spent his time at the center eating pretzels, cookies and cake.

He was recruited to help paint walls and organize the center during the two weeks before the open house, he said.

"I think it's cool. It's a way to get away from home," he said.

For most of the boys visiting the center, the highlight was not food or dancing but checking out the gaming room, complete with eight new computers, rolling office chairs and tables.

Chandler asked the boys for their input on what games should be available to play and what kinds of events and game tournaments the center should organize.

Daniel Young, 17, of Alachua, offered his suggestions based on his experience with other popular gaming centers such as WYSIWYG Gaming, which recently closed its Gainesville location, and Gamers Asylum.

"Alachua's always been a country town. We always go to Gainesville to do everything," he said. "If word gets out, people might drive all the way from Gainesville to come here."

Young said he and his friends would go to the gaming centers in Gainesville about every other week. They used gaming for entertainment and socializing, since most of them could not get cable TV or DSL Internet connection in parts of Alachua, he said.

Chandler said she hopes to add more computers for gaming in the future and will charge a small fee for use.

In addition to tutoring and fun activities, she said she wants to continue to make the center a safe haven for teenagers to talk about their problems with people who are willing to listen and help.

"One on one, you can make a miracle happen with people," Chandler said.

A boy or girl out there who is unhappy at home and has no one to talk to will always have a home at the center, she said.

"People can be transformed by a place and space, and that's what happens here," she said.

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Melissa Garcia / words + designs