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July 04, 2009 10:31 PM

Youth Center In Tea Opening

A pastor in Tea is about a week away from opening a new youth center in town. But In 2003, 42-year-old Panaia was convicted of indecent exposure to a woman, and is currently listed on the state's Sex Offender Registry 

Now he's hoping the public will look past his past -- and give him their support and trust in helping the community's youth.

The Bridging the Gap Community Church and Youth Center is still about a week away from opening, but the fun and games have already begun.

"Our goal is to reach the young church, the non-believers, the lost, the hurt, the hungry," Panaia said

While no one will be turned away from hanging out at the new youth center, Pastor Joe Panaia says the public shouldn't be turned off by his criminal past.

"If people don't want to attend our church services, do not want to send their kids here, I'm sorry. But I'll you what I'm not: a convicted pedophile, nor will I ever be a convicted pedophile, nor will I ever condone it," Panaia said.

Panaia said his 2003 indecent exposure guilty plea involved a woman, not a teenager, and has learned lessons since then.

Volunteers with the church and youth center say despite Panaia's past, families shouldn't have anything to worry about.

"Paster Joe is awesome. I have an 8-year-old child myself. I have a couple of boys I mentor between 15-to-18 years old, and he's a great character man, there's no reason why I'd be scared to bring my kids here." volunteer Ryan Shepherd said.

Perry Edblom is a youth center volunteer and lives down the street from Panaia. He believes in Panaia's goal to serve the community.

"A place where kids can go spend time together, low pressure, we're all Christians here," Edblom said.

But time is something they hope will change perceptions.

Panaia says he's in the process of getting his named removed from the state sex offender registry list, and that it didn't get in the way of being able to open the youth center.
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