See inside the New Youth Community Center Opening at St. Luke's Gethsemane in Sharpstown

See inside the New Youth Community Center Opening at St. Luke's Gethsemane in Sharpstown

Youth ages 11-24 will have a dedicated space in Sharpstown starting on June 17—but the community is invited to visit for a ribbon cutting on June 6. The 53,000-square-foot building (or is it 55,000?) will hold everything from basketball hoops and volleyball nets to art and karate classes to versatile hangout spaces and more.

The center isn’t just for youth. The Café, run by partner organization PX Project, will be open to anyone. But the main focus is on providing youth with a "safe third space outside of home and school," said Ryan Villareal, The Garden's executive director.

For the congregation of St. Luke’s United Methodist Gethsemane, the project has been years in the making. Sitting near the border between Sharpstown and Gulfton, Gethsemane has been heavily involved with serving a diverse immigrant and refugee population for years. The congregation hosts ESL classes, holds church services in three languages—English, Spanish, and Swahili—and has helped to start or support a variety of nonprofits that call its campus home, including PX Project, Connect Community, Houston reVision, and the Southwest branch of Christian Community Service Center.

The seeds of The Garden, the church's latest project, were planted in 2013 when St. Luke's launched a capital campaign to construct a near-identical student ministry building on its Westheimer campus. "We saw the impact it made," said Julie Ellerbrock, Gethsemane campus director. People started talking about bringing a similar building to Gethsemane.

In 2021, St. Luke's launched a capital campaign to fund the new youth center. In August 2022, Gethsemane broke ground. In summer 2023, the church invited a multigenerational group of community residents to choose the name for the center, eventually settling on The Garden.

"This building belongs to them," said Villareal, who has been working with youth in Sharpstown/Gulfton ever since he taught English at KIPP in 2014. The Garden's youth board–including one of Villareal's former 5th-grade students—has helped to design the interior, choose the furniture, and more.

Several of Gethsemane's community partner organizations, including PX Project and Connect Community, will also move into the youth center.

Community members get their first chance to visit on June 2, but The Sharpener got a sneak peek ahead of time.

Here’s a tour.

The Forum

Entering the main doors, youth members will step into a long hall. For safety purposes, to get into the main hangout space, they need to check in at the reception desk and get badged into the Forum, which Villareal describes as the “Grand Central Station” for the building.

Couches dot the room, but “we wouldn't encourage a young person to just hang out on the couch for eight hours a day,” said Villareal, wearing a neon green safety vest. (The building was still under construction at the time of The Sharpener's tour.)

While hanging out in the Forum, youth are encouraged to check out a digital menu on their phones, listing what classes and activities are available that day. "You are choosing your own adventure...there’s always forward momentum.”

The Gym

Students can also step into the adjacent gym for a game. The full-size court can be used for basketball, volleyball, or pickleball—and the walls are hardened for indoor soccer.

The Study

“Most youth centers are built for extroverts,” said Villareal. He wants the Garden to be different. That’s where the Study comes in: a “space for individual focus…dedicated to introverts.”

Smaller and quieter than the Forum, the second-floor Study will include chairs, tables, and bookshelves. Villareal says the books will be selected based on youth feedback.

Ruach Room

Named after the Hebrew word for “Spirit,” this space—boasting a stage and soundboard—will host youth worship services on Sunday mornings and “all kinds of things” throughout the week.

PX Project Kitchen

PX Project, one of The Garden's community partner organizations, trains young adults who successfully apply to be fellows.

The 18-week fellowship is a paid, full-time job that "turns the kitchen into an immersive classroom."

Fellows learn to cook, but PX Project is not a culinary school. Instead, the workforce development program teaches transferable skills that can serve fellows in any career.

The Café

Most of the center is for youth, but the café is “for everyone.” Anyone from the community can drop by to buy a meal.

Villareal said there will be a PX fellow taking orders at the point of sale, and “You’ll know as a patron that you’re helping to develop that young person."

Hours for the café have not yet been released.

Multipurpose Rooms

The Garden includes several multipurpose rooms that can be used for Boy Scout meetings, member classes, and more. The biggest multipurpose room, pictured above, could even be used for Zumba or Pilates thanks to the hardwood floors, said Villareal.

Classes are about helping young people answer questions that matter to them. That can include a "broad spectrum" of topics from ESL to coding and more: "I bet you could come up with a list of things you wish you to change a tire, how do taxes work, how does the stock market work, how does forgiveness work, how does grief work, how do you make long-lasting relationships?"

Offices for Community Partners

The Garden includes office spaces set aside for community partners. Certain nonprofits that serve the Sharpstown/Gulfton community will get the chance to move into the offices. The list of partners is still fluid.

"Our highest calling is to empower young people to write their own stories," said Villareal. He says he's often asked to share stories about young people, but he wants the stories to be told through their lenses, not his. One way to do that is through Project Heirloom.

He interviews a young person for thirty minutes to an hour, and they condense the recording to a 2-3-minute clip.

"They chose the moments that they wanted in this story. They chose the music. They chose everything about how their story was being expressed."

The first ten stories have been released as part of the project's first "volume." Some focus on challenges like the death of a mother or abandonment by a father. Some focus on triumphs, like getting a full-ride scholarship to college. Some are a tribute to parents and siblings. The tenth story is Villareal's—he let the youth interview him.

Paper copies of five portraits from the first volume of Project Heirloom

No story is wrapped up in a "pretty bow," said Villareal. "Life is not linear. It's just a collection of moments."

The portraits and recordings that youth create will find a home in the Gallery, a space “dedicated to expressing stories.”

The Garden's Philosophy

“Kids need a safe third space outside of home and school,” said Villareal. Friends, staff, and volunteers at The Garden can “address the issues that are not being addressed in the classroom...or at the dinner table.”

Physical safety is a factor, of course, but for Villareal, safety is about more. It's also about the freedom to "explore those biggest questions...take risks socially...question authority, question institutions, but in a way that's civil, that's respectful, and that you're able to learn new things about yourself and others."

The logo, a labyrinth, symbolizes "a place where all can enter and all can navigate the maze—life."

Youth Can Choose a “Spiritual Component”

Even though it's on the campus of a church, The Garden is "open to all faiths or no faiths," said Villareal. Youth members don't have to participate in religious activities. But “there is a spiritual component should a young person choose,” including opportunities to participate in Bible studies and mission trips.

He and Ellerbrock also said that Christian faith motivated the construction of the center. “We strongly believe that we are all created in God’s image and try to live and love like Jesus,” said Ellerbrock. “We try to show kindness and compassion to everyone.”

Three-Stage Opening

St. Luke's will hold a worship and consecration service at The Garden on Sunday, June 2, at 2:00 PM, followed by refreshments and self-guided tours.

The ribbon cutting and community celebration will follow on Thursday, June 6, at 11:00 AM.

 The Garden will start its summer hours of operation—12:00 to 7:00 PM—on June 17. Hours are subject to change.