In the age of online gaming, it's difficult to find places like the Game Loft in Belfast, which is an electronic-game-free home to 240 youth in the region.

Located in the center of downtown Belfast, the Loft started out as a retail store called “All About Games,” opened by a couple, Ray and Patricia Estabrook, in 1996. The shop exploded with youth of all ages who wanted to play the non-electronic games that the store offered, and seeing a need for a youth center in the area, the Estabrooks opened the volunteer-run community center The Game Loft in 1998, a separate entity from “All About Games,” which is still in operation. In summer 1999, when the Loft had run out of funds, it received help from Communities for Children, an organization offering services for Maine youth, by offering an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. The volunteer researched and wrote grants, and took on a number of administrative responsibilities to allow the Loft to stay open. These volunteers continue to be an important part of the Loft's existence.

Throughout the years, The Game Loft has matured from a place simply for people to play games to an after-school program organized around a gaming community. Many youth often start attending the program as early as age eight and stay with the Loft until high school graduation. The majority of the youth are 15 to 16 years old.

Daily there are 15-35 youth who frequent the Loft, whose mission is to “promote positive youth development through games and community involvement,” according to Ray Estabrook. It is a nonprofit program designed to provide an environment where youth are “guided to becoming caring, competent, confident, contributing and connected adults, and are provided with opportunities to serve and experiences that through games lead to increased knowledge and understanding of our world,” according the the Loft's website.

The Loft is open from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and until 8:30 p.m. on Friday for youth over 12 years of age. There is also a satellite program at Mount View Middle School on Wednesdays when the Belfast location is closed.

There is always an adult volunteer present, and rules of the program are reviewed with all participants and prominently posted. The most important one is for both adults and youths to respect each other. The most popular games played are the card game Magic the Gathering, and the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Game Loft director Chris Donnelly likes to think he's made a difference in the lives of the youth.

“We work with a lot of home-schooled kids,” he said. “There is a large community of them around here and they come to the Loft because it's one of the only ways they can broaden their social horizon.”

AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Patrick Martell said he considers himself a role model. The loft has helped the youth to learn or better their communication, conflict resolution, time management and teamwork skills, he said.

Rio Greeley, who is now 19 years old, recalled the time he began going to the Loft nine years ago. As a child, he used to go to his mother's workplace and made up a role-playing game that he would play in the basement there with some other kids who were there. One of his mother's coworkers saw Greeley playing there and introduced him to the Loft, where a different version of his game was actually adopted.

“The Loft definitely had an impact on my life,” he said. “I was never very social as a kid, and the Loft helped me broaden my social circle.”

The Loft also offers lunch to the youth free of charge every weekday and dinner on Fridays, prepared and served by the volunteers.