The Game Loft Needs Your Help

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Game Loft Belfast MaineGame Loft Belfast Maine

Teens playing tabletop RPGs at the Game Loft in Belfast, Maine, a teen center that uses D&D and other games to teach leadership, social skills and community service. (photo: Ethan Gilsdorf)

A teen center called The Game Loft that teaches Dungeons & Dragons as a path towards leadership, socialization and community service needs the help of the geek community.

In tiny Belfast, Maine, you’ll find this unique after-school program for middle and high school kids in the attic of a game shop called All About Games. Here, miracles happen. Shy kids learn how to solve problems, find friends, and fellowship. They play games, get a free meal, and have fun.

I’ve visited the center and have written about it. I can attest The Game Loft is a wonderful place, run by two tireless, dedicated leaders, Ray and Patricia Estabrook.

The participants think so, too.

“Role-play groups help you have new experiences and connect with people in your group in a way that would not be possible otherwise,” says Dakota Wing, a high school junior who has attended the program for four years. “You share things, you experience new things, and you develop intense friendships in a role-play group.”

“We have a large percentage of kids who are struggling either with behavior or academics at school,” says co-founder Patricia Estabrook, who with her husband Ray (both lifelong gamers) realized their store had become an ad hoc gathering place for youths who wanted to learn and play games, and opened their community center in the 1998 in their game shop’s attic. The innovative hangout is the only gaming-focused youth center in the country.

“We mostly serve youth who do not participate in other after-school or community activities,” says Ms. Estabrook. Most are boys and primarily low-income. The Game Loft programs are free to all.

But The Game Loft is in financial trouble.

In 2009 it was bought by Spurwink Services, the largest social service program in Maine. At that time its budget was $100,000 and it served some 80 kids. Over the past two years, Spurwink helped fund an expansion that included more experienced staff, more staff training, and an increased membership to 160-plus members, not counting drop-ins. The Game Loft even launched a satellite program in nearby Unity, Maine, serving 20 kids per week.

Ray Estabrook, left, with teens at the Game Loft, planning their next game.Ray Estabrook, left, with teens at the Game Loft, planning their next game.

Co-founder Ray Estabrook, left, with teens and staff at The Game Loft, planning their next gaming session. (Photo: Ethan Gilsdorf)

Then, this November, Spurwink got hit with funding cuts. The result: The Game Loft had to trim $35,000 from its budget. Now it’s down to operating on $95,000, which meant laying off one full-time employee, drastically reducing all the other three staff members’ hours, and cutting how many days they’re open. Even Patricia Estabrook is down to 20 hours per week.

“I know that in Maine it’s hard to look at things like ‘gaming program for kids’ versus ‘heat assistance and basic needs,'” said Monique Bouchard, co-founder of SnowCon, a northern Maine gaming convention (coming up Jan 13-15). “But I think that a program like this makes the youth it serves better prepared for life — and likely less likely to need assistance down the road. That’s kind of a leap maybe, but I believe in the power of inspiration.”

Ms. Bouchard asks the geek and gamer community help publicize the program and its urgent need for assistance. Any help, she says, would be “a life-saver.”

She adds: “It serves a very low-income community and is not only, in my view, a dream-maker and hope-creator that teaches real life skills through gaming — diplomacy, cleverness, wisdom, math — but for many kids, [it’s] a safe place to go and a hot meal as well.”

Clearly, sitting around a table munching snacks is about more than just fun. In my case, as a troubled teen, D&D saved me. I was able to absorb myself in an engrossing activity, and finally find a group of friends who “got” me.

Just ask Stephen Colby, another high school junior and Game Loft regular: “I have discovered things about myself. I volunteer. I know that my work makes a difference in the community. I have experienced new things that I would never have known existed … What we do is fun but it helps you learn.”

“Unlike other places where there is a division between adults and youth, at The Game Loft we are respected and genuinely liked by adults,” says Dakota Wing. “We share games and activities and they expect us to rise to their level.”

“The conversations at The Loft are intense and in-depth,” adds Stephen. “You can trust people there. You know that both the staff and the other members are there for you. They are all my friends and they all support me.”

Here’s how to help:

• Make checks payable to: Spurwink Services, 899 Riverside Street, Portland, ME 04103. Donors are welcome to request that the funds be used for the general benefit of The Game Loft.

• Contributions can be made online through Network for Good

• For more information about the program visit the website

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