Ashley’s Clubhouse Opens Doors to Youth Where Resources Are Scarce

The Clubhouse
The grand opening of The Clubhouse.

Other underserved areas in the U.S. would be wise to look closely at what this safe space means to the Harford County, Md., community

By Jennifer Taylor

When The Clubhouse by Ashley opened its doors to Harford County, Md., adolescents two months ago, there was plenty to celebrate—movie nights, yoga, cooking, arts and crafts, games and a book club. But for families seeking a safe place for their children to relax, grow and learn outside of school, the opening of the after-school and summer program brought more of a sigh of relief than anything else.

The Clubhouse, a renovated 3,500-square-foot space operated by Ashley Addiction and funded partially by a $450,000 grant from Harford County, was designed to fill a gap in services for kids ages 12 to 18 (if still in high school) who are impacted by or at risk of substance use disorder. It’s the first-of-its-kind program in the Harford County region.

“What we know is resources for adolescents can be scarce,” Laura Dahl, LCPC, director of family services at Ashley, told “What we are doing is providing another resource to come alongside and work with the family.”

The pandemic exacerbated stressors in adolescents’ lives. Researchers have found that the number of children ages 3 to 17 years diagnosed with anxiety and depression grew by 29% and 27%, respectively, between 2016 and 2020. Between 2019 and 2020, children diagnosed with behavioral or conduct problems increased by 21%. The Clubhouse provides access to services that support mental health, which could head off potential substance use disorders.

The Clubhouse: A Refuge

The teen years are formative, and a perioid when many individuals try a substance for the first time, said Alex Denstman, co-CEO and president of Ashley Addiction Treatment Center, in a statement. Research shows that if youths become involved in substance-free programming that encourages and empowers them to make healthy choices, he added, their lives can change.

“Ashley has shown their commitment to supporting Harford County youth by creating effective programs that help them develop self-empowerment skills, build resiliency and increase self-esteem, which are essential tools to building a greater community,” noted Jessica Kraus, executive director of the Office of Mental Health/Core Services Agency of Harford County, in a statement.

Adolescents in the program are provided transportation from their homes to The Clubhouse. Once they arrive, says Justin Macri, who is a young adult peer recovery support specialist at The Clubhouse, they check in with the children as a group to talk, and then they break off into their activities. For some, that may include finishing homework or cooking a meal in the industrial-sized kitchen. “We allow them to cook every day that they’re here. We provide the food and give them the opportunity to choose what meal they want,” Macri says.

In addition to youth activities, The Clubhouse offers evidence-based programs for parents, such as Strengthening Families, that are meant to build parental confidence.

The ultimate goal of The Clubhouse, says Dahl, is to “come alongside these adolescents and truly provide a safe place for them to share with no judgment. It is strictly a space for them to learn how to navigate these really big feelings at such a young age.”