How Montreal teens created an arcade — and are helping to build a community

A youth-led co-operative called Press Start opened to the public in May in the Montreal neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles.

Youth-led co-operative Press Start opened to public in May in Pointe-Saint-Charles

The bulk of customers at the Press Start Arcade are between eight and 12 years of age. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

The kids are getting antsy. 

It's nearly 4 p.m. on a Saturday. The Press Start Arcade opens in a couple of minutes.

When it does, the group — most of them between the ages of eight and 12 — is unleashed into a room filled with video and arcade games.

Some of the kids' parents head downstairs to the main level of Point-Saint-Charles's Bâtiment 7 to grab a beer or a coffee in the café while their kids play.

At the door of the arcade, 16-year-old Samara Allison collects the $5 entrance fee, then heads over to help some of the younger kids turn on the consoles and television sets.

She's still in high school, but she is one of the people running the place.

Samara Allison is one of the young people who run the Press Start Arcade. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

The arcade is built for kids, by kids. It was conceived by a group of Montreal teenagers who brought their idea to life over the course of three years.

Samara and her co-workers, Imane Tidli, Shane Keith, Samuel Thériault, Cianna Thompson and Lewis Max Eberand, are all in high school. 

"It's not like somebody else did it for us: we did it for ourselves. We did it for the community," said Samara.

They were hired after community consultation found that teens in the Pointe needed jobs that empowered them and taught them transferable leadership skills.

The consultation process was launched by Saint Columba House, a community-based social justice group based in the working-class neighbourhood with a history there that dates back to the Great Depression.

Samara didn't know any of that when she applied for a job at Press Start. She thought she'd be up for work as a cashier.

It wasn't until she was hired that she learned she would be creating, opening and then running a neighbourhood arcade.

She and the other five teenagers, along with adult co-ordinators Akki MacKay and Michelle Duchesneau​, started by doing market research and raising funds to get the arcade off the ground.

Michelle Duchesneau is one of two adults who work with the teenagers to run the daily operations of the Press Start Arcade. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

They crowdsourced the first $10,000 and solicited donations from foundations. They built wooden cabinets reminiscent of old-style arcade games, finally opening the doors of Press Start on May 4, 2018.

"It's a very powerful project," said Duchesneau, who volunteers her time with the project.

"Seeing young people run it and make decisions, really feeling like it's their project … it keeps me motivated and inspired."

For their $5 entrance fee, customers can then play whatever games they like, for as long as they like. They can also volunteer their time at the arcade in lieu of paying to get in.

More than an after-school gig

Samara says Press Start has changed her life.  Not only does she have a job, she's become friends with her five co-workers and learned valuable business skills.

"I feel this project helps teenagers feel like, yeah, someone's really listening to us, and dreams can come true."

She came to the gig with some job experience. She runs a small business out of her home — braiding hair and doing makeup.

But after working at Press Start, she's changed her mind about what she wants to do after high school. Before, she planned to go to hairdressing school. Now, she wants to do business management.

Duchesneau​ says she's watched all of the teens who run the co-op grow. At the beginning, they asked adults for reassurance before making business decisions.

Now, they're challenging the adults.

"We'll propose one thing, and they'll tell us they disagree with it," said Duchesneau​.

"We say, 'Do more of that!'"

Social justice message

In addition to running the arcade, Press Start hosts anti-racism and up-cycling events.

Last Saturday, they held a two-hour crafting session, where children took scraps of old leather and turned them into key chains, bracelets — even a bejewelled tiara.

Press Start hosts events like this upcycling craft day, where as a side benefit, children learn about social issues. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Before the kids started their projects, their facilitators talked to them about the importance of reusing materials instead of just throwing them out, whenever possible.

Duchesneau​ said that's part of the goal of the social enterprise — to create a space to talk about social issues in addition to running the arcade.

All events hosted by Press Start are free to the public. The arcade is open after school and on weekends.

The Press Start Arcade is run by a group of teenagers, including 16-year-old Samara Allison. 0:26

About the Author

Kate McKenna

Kate McKenna is an award-winning journalist and author. She works with CBC Montreal. Email her at kate.mckenna@cbc.ca

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