Elizabeth McQueen, clinical director of Aspire, left, and Lisa Spears, child and adolescent coordinator for the Albany Area Service Board, say the Aspire Clubhouse provides a safe environment for youngsters with emotional, mental and/or behavioral problems.

Elizabeth McQueen, clinical director of Aspire, left, and Lisa Spears, child and adolescent coordinator for the Albany Area Service Board, say the Aspire Clubhouse provides a safe environment for youngsters with emotional, mental and/or behavioral problems.

ALBANY — The Aspire Child & Adolescent Program, part of the Albany Area Community Service Board, is nearing completion of its first full month of operation.

Located in the Pet Supermarket building on Dawson Road since March 1, Aspire is committed to serving children and adolescents with emotional, mental and/or behavioral problems, said Elizabeth McQueen, clinical director of Aspire. According to McQueen, the agency provides services in Baker, Calhoun, Dougherty, Early, Lee, Miller, Terrell and Worth counties.

According to Aspire officials, with adequate family support and community services, the program will reduce out-of-home placements and hospital admissions, enabling the children to remain in their homes and communities. Aspire is funded by the Department of Human Services.

New to the Aspire program and key to its effectiveness is the 7,200-square-foot Aspire Clubhouse, designed to provide a safe environment for children and teens and to develop valuable life and coping skills. It will also decrease “out-of-home placements and juvenile justice involvement,” said Lisa Spears, child and adolescent coordinator for the Albany Area Service Board.

“The clubhouse is very proactive in its objectives toward decreasing gang activity, drug and alcohol abuse, and possible jail time,” Spears said. “Some of our kids have had run-ins with the law and so we work with law enforcetment officials and with judges.”

According to Spears, Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul and other law enforcement officials have made early visits to the clubhouse to gather information with later visits planned to speak with kids and teens.

“Home life for these kids is tumultuous at best, and it changes all the time,” McQueen said. “Many of them have been physically or sexually abused.”

Aspire retains four qualified therapists, including McQueen and Spears, as well as two psychiatrists to counsel the youths. Participants have been evaluated and diagnosed before entering the program, Spears said.

The clubhouse offers computers for fun and schoolwork, a giant TV screen installed behind a performance stage, billiards, air hockey, counseling areas and more. A fully equipped kitchen stands ready for use. “LIVE, LOVE, LEARN, LEAD” is the constant message, printed boldly on walls and floor.

Activities such as dance, karate and art classes are provided. In addition, tutoring is available, as well as assistance in education, or — for those who are old enough — help in applying for employment.

“The clubhouse is a fabulous addition to the program,” Spears said. “This offers an opportunity for the kids to thrive.”

According to McQueen, food for the kids is often prepared by outside sources, although team cooking is common. Restaurateur B.J. Fletcher has been a regular contributor of food from her restaurant on Dawson Road, McQueen said.

“Sam Shurgart and others have been there for us,” McQueen said. “(Shugart) has been a big help with remodeling and has linked us up with others in the community who have helped in other ways. People like B.J. and Sam help us let the children know they are valued, that they are important.”

Spears said one of the biggest challenges in making the program work is in the crucial area of parental involvement. According to Spears, while Aspire aims for 100 percent parental involvement, only about 15 percent involvement is generally achieved.

For information about the Aspire Child & Adolescent Program and the Aspire Clubhouse, call (229) 430-5100 or (229) 430-6054.