The Sandbox volleyball and cap

Family keeps daughter’s sense of fun and friendliness alive by opening teen center

I definitely feel like could talk about something serious with the people here. They’re really open with you, and they’re really generous. If you want a quiet time and want to talk about something, they’re those types of people.

Hutto High School junior

“It kept coming to me and coming to me after that experience,” Rachael Haynes says. “‘Be Honest. Be Kind. Speak Up.’ Any one of those things would have changed the day.”

John and Rachael Haynes tragically lost their 15-year-old daughter, Madeline, to suicide in 2012. She had received “cruel texts” from a stranger earlier in the day, one of several factors that led to the unexpected tragedy. “Madeline was the last child you’d ever imagine would do this,” Rachael says. “She was as full of life as anyone I know. So even though a couple of people knew what was going on, they didn’t take it seriously—because it was her.”

If someone had been honest or kinder or had spoken up about the texts, things might have been different.

Haunted by this thought, the Haynes, with a group of close friends, decided to teach these principles—honesty, kindness, speaking up—to youth and to provide a place in Hutto for those in trouble to get help. In Madeline’s memory, they started The Sandbox at Madeline’s Place.

John and Rachael Haynes

The Teen Center

I can be myself here. I can talk here and I know I won’t get in trouble.

middle school student

The Sandbox is a nonprofit teen center that empowers “teenagers to navigate adolescence safely, happily, and with a healthy sense of self.” The center has provided prom dresses, tux rentals, and scholarships—just to help kids out. But the heart of its mission involves interaction with the teens through volleyball tournaments, sports leagues, social events, and Grades and Grub. Because Madeline loved athletics, the Sandbox runs several summer sports leagues, including soccer, wrestling, and volleyball—Madeline’s sport. Last summer, 300 girls participated in the volleyball league.

The Sandbox also runs adult and youth tournaments, which have become fun, family events. Sometimes, youth fill in for adult players and end up playing with their parents. The family connection—like many aspects of running a nonprofit—pleasantly surprised Rachael.

Perhaps nothing surprised her more, though, than what takes place in the teen center during Grades and Grubs each week. During the Grades and Grubs program, kids do homework, eat a free meal, and hang out together for a few hours. During the school year, Mondays and Wednesdays are open to middle school students, while Thursdays are for high school students. During summer months, the center is open on Mondays for all teens. There, cliques are left at the door and unlikely friendships form.

Teens play pingpong at the Sandbox

One volunteer says that these connections are why she brings her boys back week after week. “Making friends with someone with different interests shows [the boys] that everybody has something in common with somebody else,” she says. “This helps, even if it’s subconscious, to see that you have some things that draw you together.”

Take, for example, the friendship her 15-year-old son Peter* formed with 18-year-old Jack. Peter and Jack discovered that they attended some of the same events at Hutto High, where Peter is on the baseball team and Jack runs video for an A/V club, in different roles. They swap stories from their perspectives. That’s what the teen center is all about—building bridges between people.

Volunteers at the Sandbox also host fun nights, such as outdoor movie nights and s’mores around the campfire. Local firefighters once got in on the fun, hosing down a plot of dirt outside the Blue House, which houses the center, for a day of relay races and games like tug-of-war in the mud.

“Madeline’s strongest points were that she was a wildly loyal friend, the full-body-hug-with-arms-and-legs friend, and she had a quite a mischievous sense of fun. Those are two parts of her that we want to keep going,” Rachael says.

Tackling Hard Topics

The other thing that I talk to them about is something that happened to me in my life about a year ago, and they know how to relate because something similar happened to them. That feels good.

Hutto High School junior

Teens play volleyball at the Sandbox

The center’s warm, accepting environment puts the values of being honest and kind and speaking up into action. Youth have freedom to do what they like at the Blue House. They are allowed to have their phones, but they aren’t often on them. Instead, they’re playing or talking with other teens or adults. “I think there’s some uniqueness to this place,” Becky, a longtime volunteer, says. “Kids feel open to sharing their strengths and what they like. One kid likes to help others with math, and we let him. We found out that one youth liked art, and the next time she came, we got art supplies.”

As youth build trust with adults, have fun together, and enjoy free time, they develop bonds that help them talk about difficult things. John and Rachael teach a suicide prevention program as part of Teens4Teens, a group of area mental health and teen support entities whose mission is suicide prevention. Teens who attend the Haynes’ “Be Honest. Be Kind. Speak Up.” discussion receive a special wristband afterward. Rachael and John also address relationship and social media issues as they arise. When a social media app started allowing users to share gossip anonymously, Rachael knew she needed to open her doors. By the time the app became popular in Hutto, users had begun to include real names in their gossip, vulgarly sharing others’ secrets. The Haynes opened the teen center’s doors to students to provide a safe place to process the issue with people they had already come to trust.

“Rachael has a very calming presence,” Becky says. “I think that that’s really important to the kids, just as a friend.”

After one teenager experienced a tragedy in her family similar to what the Haynes endured, her mother sent her to the teen center, where she has blossomed. Becky has known the girl since she was in preschool and has seen her become more confident and social after attending Grades and Grubs for almost a year. “I probably had heard two words out of her the entire time she was in school,” Becky says. “But she’s a hoot here. She’s quirky and fun.”

Stories like these keep the Haynes going, as does the thought that if they can spare one parent from feeling what they’ve felt, their work will be worth the effort.

For more information, or to support The Sandbox at Madeline’s Place, please visit

*Youth names have been changed to protect their privacy

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