MIDDLEBURY — Jutta Miska on Monday recalled setting up a makeshift gathering spot for area teens around 17 years ago in the Middlebury Recreation Department’s old warming hut.
Local teens took to the space, but it was available only for a few years. And thus the seemingly perennial quest for a Middlebury teen center slogged on.
Miska now finds herself co-director, with recently hired Colby Benjamin, of Addison Central Teens (ACT), the organization that operates the “94 Main” teen center that is now entering its fourth winter in Middlebury municipal building.
“This has been a dream of mine for 20 years,” Miska said, before the anticipated 3 p.m. rush of teens at a center that includes a recreation room for music, billiards, TV and other games; and a “quiet room” for homework, reading and computer activities.
“The community is behind us,” Miska said. “It’s a very different ballgame this time.”
Community support has come in the form of free space from the town of Middlebury along with financial contributions from each of the seven communities that feed Middlebury Union middle and high schools: Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
With an annual budget of around $75,000, ACT is able to hire Miska and Benjamin on a part-time basis and provide a safe, supportive after-school hang-out for Addison Central Supervisory Union students in grades 7-12. The organization also sponsors occasional field trips and other special events, such as a recent Halloween dance that drew more than 200 young people. There are also cooking classes, skate nights at the Memorial Sports Center and community service outings.
While Miska has long been a teen center organizer, Benjamin is a new recruit with a knowledge of the territory.
Benjamin, 27, grew up in Salisbury and is a graduate of both MUHS and the University of Vermont with a degree in recreation management. He’s been co-director at ACT for two weeks and is pleased to help offer a program that was unavailable to him when he was a teen.
“Growing up in Middlebury, there wasn’t an after-school place for teens, so if you weren’t involved in sports, there wasn’t a structured program for people who just wanted to go and hang out,” Benjamin, a former Northlands Job Corps Recreation Department worker, said. “I also really enjoy working with kids. It is great now to be giving back to the community I grew up in.”
Interest in the 94 Main teen center has been on the rise.
Miska recalled that an average of 15-25 teens showed up daily at the center during its first year of operation. That number has now grown to an average of 18-39 teens, according to Miska. The center is currently open (when school is in session) on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 6 p.m., and Wednesdays and Fridays from 3 to 7 p.m.
Students make their way over from MUHS, MUMS, the Gailer School and other spots. They have been getting along well together, organizers said. In fact, it is not uncommon to see high school seniors engaged in discussions or games with younger students.
“We have great diversity here, age-wise,” Miska said, noting examples of mentoring between the older and younger kids. It’s a pattern of responsibility that extends to the very governance of 94 Main, as teens shape programming and rules at the facility through a youth advisory council that meets every Wednesday afternoon.
“Our motto is ‘Dream, Act, Do,’” Miska said of the focus on giving the teens as much autonomy as is reasonably possible.
Along with engaging in fun activities, participating teens have learned about restorative justice and the consequences one person’s actions can have on others. They have also learned to compromise on music played at the center and play a role in planning special activities.
It is a recipe that has kept several teens coming to the center since its inception. Among those charter teens is Lucy Weber. The 17-year-old senior at MUHS was among a group of more than 20 teens at 94 Main on Tuesday.
“My friends and I thought it was a cool place and I started coming back,” said Weber, a Weybridge resident.
Among the draws for Weber has been the opportunity to meet other young people she would never have met otherwise — such as Gailer School students.
Some of her favorite activities at 94 Main include playing pool and guitar, drawing and conversing with other teens.
“It provides a warm place in the winter time,” Weber noted, adding “it is a place where my parents can pick me up.”
Mark Pettit, a 15-year-old sophomore at MUHS, has been a 94 Main regular since relocating to East Middlebury from Rhode Island earlier this fall. He credited the teen center for helping to transform him from a loner to a more extroverted person.
“I love it; I have been here just about every day,” Pettit said. “This is how I met most of the people I am friends with at high school.”
Miska is optimistic that 94 Main will continue to flourish.
“I am so thrilled that we have this place, and I am so thankful to the town of Middlebury … that they have let us keep this place,” Miska said. “I hope we are here to stay.”
More information about ACT can be found at www.addisonteens.com or by calling 94 Main at 388-3910.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.