The Greater Twin Cities YMCA is offering free summer memberships to high school students, including gyms, pools, weight rooms and fitness classes. Signup starts Thursday.

In an effort to stem the rise of risky behaviors during the idle hours of summer, the Greater Twin Cities YMCA is offering free memberships to high school students at all 25 branches.

Students in 9th through 12th grades need a valid student ID and a signed parental permission slip to join the YMCA as part of its new "Get Summer" program. There are no income requirements. Enrollment starts Thursday.

"We want it to be free. We know financial resources can be one of the biggest barriers for equity and inclusion for a lot of teens," said YMCA Chief Operating Officer Greg Waibel.

YMCA leaders started brainstorming about teen programming last winter with the realization that while younger children's summer programs are plentiful in the Twin Cities, options for teens are more limited and can mean more trouble, Waibel said. Teens can also bristle at programs that are too structured and don't offer some flexibility and choice.

"We know in our community, violence, drinking, drug use increase during the summertime when teens are idle and unsupervised," Waibel said.

Other YMCAs across the country including those in Los Angeles, Boston and Richmond, Va., have offered similar programs.

Students will have access to the gyms, pools, weight rooms and fitness classes. "Get Summer" is also designed to encourage teens to put down phones, close their laptops, socialize with others and get some exercise.

The program, including a dinner program at five locations, will cost about $100,000. The Y will allow up to 200 free teen members at each location to ensure there is adequate staff and programming. That number was increased from 150 this week as YMCA staff anticipated a surge in demand for the program. The Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, created in 2004 by the Best Buy founder, is partnering with the YMCA to offer this program.

"It's really making sure we are well prepared," Waibel said.

St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders said the YMCA's "Get Summer" sounds promising and will join other efforts including the Police Activities League, which organizes youth outings and activities for kids and teens.

"During the summer months our officers do interact more frequently with young people. Sometimes those interactions involve law enforcement activities," Linders said. "Kids have more free time in the summer. Anytime you can fill that time with something positive and productive, that's outstanding."

Waibel, a father of two teens, said he knows firsthand how parents struggle to ensure summer is fun and productive.
"Are they going to be home all day by themselves doing I don't know what or sitting in front of the computer?" Waibel said.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, co-chair of the Senate Afterschool Caucus, endorsed the new program.

"Summer enrichment programs are key to helping teens enhance their skills from the school year and not let them slide," Franken said in a written statement. "I am thankful for these efforts."