UND junior Tyler Larson wants to give middle school and high schoolers a safe, welcoming environment to escape the pressures of underage drinking and other activities that can lead to trouble. He wants to give the age demographic a place to call its own.

In 2017, as a high school junior in Harvey, N.D., Larson created what is now known as the Penny House, a place for middle and high schoolers to hang out and socialize.

“It’s a safe place where they can go to just be a kid if they want to be a kid,” Larson said. “They can mess around, play some video games and be with friends.”

Growing up in Harvey, a town of about 1,700, Larson said there were sometimes pressures for high schoolers to drink. He and a group of friends wanted to change that -- or at least give students a place to go without those concerns. A conversation in a hot tub in the middle of a North Dakota winter eventually birthed the idea of the Penny House, which eventually took shape in Harvey.

The space allowed students to congregate for a few hours after school, where they could play board games, video games or just hangout. The model saw success in Harvey, Larson said.

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When Larson arrived at UND, he wanted to establish another Penny House in Grand Forks, but it wouldn’t be so simple. It would involve finding the right spot, as well as funding.

Larson was among the original winners of Evolve Grand Forks’ Main Street GF Challenge. He used that money to establish four “pop-up” locations of the Penny House to conduct market research. He recently secured a microgrant from the Community Foundation’s Longest Table event, which made more pop-ups possible.

This weekend, Black Friday and Saturday, Larson will be hosting two events in the Columbia Mall. Middle school students can drop by the space any time from 2 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 29, and high schoolers are welcome from 2 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30. Larson will host another set of pop-up events Dec. 20-21, following the same pattern.

“This is really just a building up to the eventual introduction of the Penny House to Grand Forks,” Larson said.

Larson said working with the Columbia Mall and other groups, such as the virtual reality arcade, Deeks and Rock 30 Games, has been a positive experience.

The Grand Forks Youth Commission conducted a survey recently that came back with 90% of students stating they want a place to call their own to be away from other pressures, a place where they can just hang out with their friends for a few hours, Larson said.

The Penny House is not an after-school program associated with specific schools, though Larson has seen support for the idea from schools in the Grand Forks area. Larson’s mentor Paul Sum, a political science and public administration professor at UND, noted that from when school ends to the late evening has been identified as a vulnerable time for the junior high and high school age group.

“Just providing this place is helpful for the community because it shows the investment in the future generations,” Larson said. “It shows that Harvey and, eventually, Grand Forks cares about the development of their youth. It eases the mind of the parents knowing that when they drop the kids off at the Penny House that they're going to be in a safe place without some of those temptations, some of those pressures that they have anywhere else.”

If funding allows, Larson said he hopes to establish a permanent chapter of the Penny House in Grand Forks some time next year.