Teen advocate earns heartfelt praise
MIDDLEBURY — Jutta Miska’s contributions to teen issues date back to the 1970s, when she — then a teen herself — took a lead role in organizing youth activities at her former church in the small village of Thungen, in her native Germany.
She went on to study social work, which started her on a career of helping children with various disabilities.
But suddenly, Miska’s life and career took a sharp detour — to the Middlebury area, where she and her family relocated in 1983. Though her command of the English language was minimal, that did not stop her from becoming involved with her favorite demographic — teens.
“Teens have been my passion forever,” said Miska, whose command of English is now excellent while delivered with an unmistakable German accent. “I have learned so much from them … They are incredible human beings.”
Miska was feted by the Middlebury-area community on Thursday as she prepared to exit as co-director of the Addison Central Teens (ACT) organization, which runs a youth center and other programs out of donated space in the lower level of Middlebury’s municipal building. While some of her many admirers laid out food and set up decorations for a party in her honor, Miska took some time to reflect on her 32 years — and counting — helping Addison County teens.
It began soon after her arrival in ’83. Miska , Joyce Meacham and Lee Guptill, among others, set up a Middlebury teen center at the former warming hut off Buttolph Drive. The center attracted a decent following and had a good run until the mid-1990s, when it was supplanted by the Memorial Sports Center.
Fortunately, the loss of a permanent space did not deter Miska and others from their outreach efforts. Miska, Joyce Dicianna and the Rev. Steven Jewett coordinated a “Youth Empowerment” program on the Middlebury Union High School campus. The group met for two afternoon sessions per week during the school year.
“I was kind of the mother of the group,” she recalled with a smile.
Youth Empowerment offered some dances and open-mic events, but also a forum through which to voice opinions about school issues. The program lasted for around two years, but unfortunately came to an end after grant funding ran out.
Miska then teamed up with Porter Knight, erstwhile recycling coordinator for Bristol and Middlebury, to organize some local fashion shows teaching local teens how to make good fashions out of recycled clothing. Those sporadic shows were helpful, but could not fill the void that a dedicated teen center space could provide.
Teens found a temporary spot to hold activities — the basement of Carol’s Hungry Mind Café on Merchants Row. They hosted some dances, game nights and musical performances.
But it was in 2005 that Miska joined an effort to fill the teen center void. Some local teens and their parents, including local attorney Emily Joselson, formed ACT. The group began lobbying the selectboards of Middlebury and surrounding towns to contribute toward establishing and funding a teen center. Thanks in part to an anonymous pledge of $25,000, the group was able to leverage financial assistance from several towns who send students to Middlebury Union High School. The town of Middlebury also came through with donated space in the lower level of the municipal building at 94 Main St. The municipal building will be razed next year when the new town offices open at 77 Main St., so the town is allowing the teen center to move into the current warming hut at Middlebury’s recreation park.
“It really took off,” Miska recalled of the teen center at 94 Main St. that officially opened its doors in August of 2007. It has been open five days per week after school throughout the academic year, offering a safe place for students to play games, socialize, study and have a snack. Miska pitched in as a volunteer and quickly became a beloved and respected member of the community.
In 2010, a staff position opened up at the teen center. She was encouraged to apply.
“I was doing so much volunteering, they said I might as well get paid for it,” Miska said.
Five years later, Miska still enjoys the job but is ready to help teens in another way. She is looking for space in which to open a second-hand clothing store specializing in youth fashions. It would be a logical extension of her “Swap & Shop” program at MUHS that during a limited time during the academic year gives students access to clean, gently used clothing at a bargain. They can also trade in some of their own clothing and help staff the shop to gain points to acquire store clothing that meets their fancy. Miska believes the new shop would give teens an affordable, local place to buy clothing and work.
She leaves her teen center role with mixed feelings.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “On one hand, I am excited to get the store going. On the other hand, this has been part of my life for so long. It’s going to be hard. I love the kids. People tell me I have given so much to kids over the years, but I think it has been the other way around.”
Meanwhile, Colby Benjamin will become lone executive director of the teen center, which will now recruit a program manager. He said Miska — and her tremendous dedication and energy — will be missed.
“She’s keeping up with these young kids, putting on dances, doing overnights and camping trips,” Benjamin said. “It’s pretty impressive to me, her passion for the teen center, and her willingness to put in those extra hours all for the kids.”
Joselson is no longer part of the ACT board, but serves on its long-range planning committee. She has long appreciated Miska’s drive and contributions to area teens.
“She’s always had that passion and the most remarkable thing about her includes her seemingly bottomless energy and creativity, and her fundamental belief that teens are people like everyone else and should be treated equally and should be treated with respect,” Joselson said. “When she holds teens in high regard and has high expectations of what they can accomplish, they absorb that sense of respect — and it becomes self-respect, and they are able to meet increasingly higher expectations and feel empowered to deal with problems on their own.”
Zach Feehan and Benn Lussier are MUHS seniors who have been teen center regulars for several years. They both have come to like and respect Miska.
“I like the way she treats all the kids,” Lussier said, adding she has been like a parental figure who has made sure teens are safe, fed and out of trouble.
“I think she’s really good at keeping order,” Feehan said. “A lot of kids who come in here can raise a lot of chaos, and she is good at containing that and keeping everything in place. She is very impartial.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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