'This is just that kind of place'

SYCAMORE – Kobe Lohr “just likes to dress crazy” whenever she can.

“It attracts a lot of attention,” the Sycamore High School freshman said. She was clad head to toe in a bright yellow Pikachu outfit, from the Pokemon game and series. “My mom lets me do it here. This is just that kind of place.”

“This” is Sycamore High’s Sci-Fi Club, which meets every other Friday night – as long as there is no home sporting event – during the school year. The five-hour meetings begin at 5 p.m. in the school library, with a break in the middle for pizza from local restaurant Italian Dreams.

The club’s name is a little misleading. Jan Hill, a parent and chaperon, said the club is open to any SHS student. It is described on the school’s website as a place “where students can be themselves and be with friends as they enjoy watching science fiction movies and play games.”

“This isn’t about sci-fi, it’s about community,” coordinator Alan Iandola said. “Kids need a good, safe environment. The main thing I like is this lets kids be kids a little longer. They have enough time to get out in the world.”

Iandola said the group started 14 years ago when a former student, Jamie Sweet, wanted to start a book club. Not sure what to expect, Iandola arranged to show a science fiction movie, which they would then discuss. At the first meeting, he said, about a dozen kids showed up. At the second, there were 24; at the third, about 60.

Ever since then, that’s about what the club averages, although Hill said they drew 120 students one night.

“What I  like is the bonding,” Iandola said, adding that teens are allowed to explore relationships and make new friends. “There are a lot of different interests here. We have everyone here.”

That includes honor students, student-athletes, special-needs students, shy students, even foreign exchange students.

“It’s like organized chaos,” club president Devin Moulton said. “There is something for everyone here. If you can’t find it here, we’ll make it for you.”

For the most part, teens are allowed to do what they want, so long as it’s within the parameters of good behavior and good taste. TV monitors are set up for movies and video games. Some kids sit at tables to play card games or read. In one stairwell, two girls sat side by side playing video games on their smartphones. In another corner, three girls sat on stuffed chairs talking and braiding each other’s hair.

Kids are also allowed to express themselves through dress. One boy was dressed in a black suit and tie. Others like to dye their skin. The theme of the last meeting was Pajama Night; some dressed in bedroom clothes while others chose not to.

For many, the highlight of the night is when they divide up into big circles to play a game called Death Note Mafia.

Regardless of what one does, everyone is accepted.

“It is awesome,” Sarah Stegle said.

Freshman Jenna McMahon, who knew a little about the club before she started  high school, said some friends convinced her to go. She persuaded her best friend, Kathleen Snyder, to go with her. They’ve been going ever since.

“I was really shy as a freshman and I didn’t know if I’d make that many friends,” Moulton said. “We just get together and have a good time.”

Senior Caroline Corr said she has also been coming to the club since she was a freshman. She likes to dress up, she said, and to hang out with her friends.

By far, the longest-serving member is junior Tyler Hill, who has been coming since the third grade. His mother worked nights and his father chaperoned club meetings when his two older brothers attended.

“It was either six hours at my mom’s gas station or five hours of playing video games,” he said. “As an 8-year-old, it’s not a hard choice.”

Hill, who serves as student liaison, said the main reason he still attends is to play video games with his friends.

“If it wasn’t for sci-fi club, I probably wouldn’t know half the people I know,” he said.

Nearby, sophomore Mavrick Schreiber played Magic: The Gathering with Ed Waller. The boys had just met that night. Waller moved to Sycamore just six days before the school year started, he said. He was president of a gaming club at his old school, which hosts one of the largest video-game tournaments in Wisconsin.

The Sycamore club, he said, is bigger than his old one.

“You don’t have to be a member of the club to come here,” he said. “It’s cheap to come here and meet and play with friends.”

It costs students $3 to attend a meeting, $6 if they want to share in the pizza. Anyone who can’t afford the fee can work it off so no one is turned away from the club, Iandola said. At the end of the school year, club members take a trip to Medieval Times.

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