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Teen Tech Center gives Gary youth visions of a future

Damien Maldonado, 14, sat at a high-tech Brother sewing machine, demonstrating his custom clothing making techniques Thursday in the new Best Buy Teen Tech Center at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Northwest Indiana Gary Club.

Maldonado was one of about a dozen youth tapped to demonstrate the equipment designed to provide a look at potential careers in technologically based fields. The equipment, which included things like a sound booth, mixing board, video studio, 3D printers and an array of state-of-the-art computers, was supplied by Best Buy and the center was made possible through funding provided by The Damien and Katy Harmon Foundation, with support from local foundations and businesses.

Damien Harmon was raised in Gary and is now the executive vice president of Omnichannel at Best Buy.

“I’m here to talk about my journey,” Maldonado said, adding the center and what it offered was beautiful.

“Growing up in Gary is not always easy,” he said. “I always wanted to be different.”

That desire led Maldonado to start making his own clothes. He said he had a lot of people help him on the way and a lot of resources to help him better himself. The Tech Center is one of those opportunities.

“The sewing machine here is really nice. It’s better than the one I have at home,” he said. “I love this place and I love Best Buy. Thank you.”

The Best Buy Teen Tech Center is the 50th such center opened by the company across the country.

Ryan Smiley, Boys & Girls Club CEO, said the Tech Center is connected to the club’s Teen Career Academy to ensure all youth have access to technology to which they may not otherwise be exposed and to career fields they may not know about.

“Kids can’t be what kids can’t see,” he said. The Tech Center is the club’s crown jewel and he is hopeful it will be replicated in the other eight Northwest Indiana club locations.

Harmon said youth need to surround themselves with people who are on the same trajectory and can help them achieve their goals.

“You can only dream when you have people around you to help you dream,” he said, attributing his success to support from his mother and father as he grew up in Gary. His work has allowed him to travel around the world.

“Every single day I aspire to be the best version of myself. I’m a firm believer anything is possible,” Harmon said.

When visiting the Tech Center in July, Harmon said he had to call the CEO of Best Buy and the response from some of the young people was incredulous. He said they wondered how a Gary native could just call a CE). He said he wants the city’s youth to know it is possible, and he encouraged students to have higher expectations for themselves than anyone around them.

“I’m a product of Gary. I’m a son of Gary,” Harmon said.

Elise Phillips, 15, was using a program called Wacum Waves to use a stylus to draw a dragon on a computer screen, while Bryian Gray, 14, was at the soundboard providing a musical background to the Tech Center tour. One of the songs he was playing was his own.

“I’m shaking I’m so excited,” Gray said after stopping everyone in their tracks with some dance moves with a friend. He previously used friends’ equipment to make music. The Tech Center gives him more access. He plans to pursue a career in the music industry.

“I want to make a studio where a lot of people come and make music,” Gray said.

His mom Latrice Roberts beamed with pride. She said her son has always been musically inclined.

“I think this is an amazing opportunity for teenagers to have to express themselves. It’s amazing to have an opportunity to express yourself in a productive way,” Roberts said.

Corie Barry, CEO of Best Buy, said the company is on the road to 100 Tech Centers by 2025. The company’s purpose is to enrich lives through technology.

“Access is uneven, potential is not,” Barry said. The Tech Center gives youth the chance to see a career they many not otherwise think about, creating the opportunity for futures in good paying careers and laying the groundwork to create generational wealth.

“This is how we believe you will leave your mark for the next 100 years,” Barry said.

Deputy Mayor Trent McCain said Harmon represents one of the city’s success stories. Even though he has moved away, his heart is in his hometown.

“You may not remain in Gary. You may move on… When you move away you may stay there, but let your heart always remain in Gary. Give back to the city that gave you life,” McCain said.

“We are so appreciative of what you have done and how you inspired your entire company to follow your lead,” McCain said. “The Best Buy Teen Tech Center will allow young people to go into their world that has no boundaries.”

Cynthia Holman-Upshaw of Merrillville, Harmon’s aunt, was among the approximately 100 people at the open house. She said she was proud of her nephew for all his accomplishments and for giving back to his hometown. She said it was nice to see a safe place for teens to utilize.

“They are so excited to be here,” Holman-Upshaw said.

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