ACT teen center begins new chapter in bright, new location

MIDDLEBURY — When the final bell ends each school day at Middlebury Union High School, Tristan Woods could easily walk home. But the 9th-grader more often than not takes a detour to what many are describing as the “new-and-improved” teen center at 77 Mary Hogan Drive.
“I enjoy this center,” Woods said last week while playing a video game on one of the center’s computers. “This center is a little more welcoming. There’s entertainment, and nice people.”
It was in April that the new Addison Central Teens (ACT) center opened in the former warming hut building between Mary Hogan Elementary School and the town tennis courts. It replaces the former ACT gathering spot in the basement of the old municipal building at 94 Main St., which was demolished this past summer. Center leaders and student visitors are pleased to have graduated to a new teen center that features windows, inviting décor and a bevy of new outdoor recreation options.
“It has opened the door to a lot of different programs,” said ACT program Coordinator Erin Morrison.
Addison Central Teens began offering a youth center (for grades 7-12) in 2007, thanks to an anonymous $25,000 contribution and promises of additional annual funding from taxpayers in the Addison Central Supervisory Union-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. The town of Middlebury donated some teen center space in the former municipal building. Though gratefully accepted, the space was not ideal; there was no natural light to speak of, little air circulation, and no adjacent playing fields.
A voter-approved plan to raze the old municipal building and erect a new one at 77 Main St. forced ACT to search for a new teen center home. They fortunately found a good candidate in the former warming hut.
It didn’t at first look like a match made in heaven, however.
“When the town first started talking about moving out of the municipal building and floated the idea of ACT moving into the warming hut, I was a little apprehensive,” ACT Executive Director Colby Benjamin said. “I was familiar with the warming hut, but had never thought of it as a teen center.”
The hut had for several years been used as a changing facility for hockey teams playing at the nearby Memorial Sports Center.
But the more Benjamin surveyed the interior of the modest building, the more he saw potential in its roughly 1,200 square feet. He and other ACT boosters mapped out a main gathering room; a smaller room for TV viewing and quieter activities; and a very Spartan office. 
“I saw there was a mop sink and I thought, ‘Well, we can put a kitchen right here,’” Benjamin recalled. “Then I looked over at the corner and thought we could probably fit computers over there.
“I thought it could work,” he concluded.
Having worked in the past with his dad, a general contractor, Benjamin was able to size up the necessary building improvements to turn the former warming hut into a fully furnished teen center. He estimated those upgrades — ranging from kitchen installation to interior painting — at around $20,000. ACT officials successfully applied for $17,000 in grants from two sources, including the Middlebury-based Vermont Community Foundation.
The center also benefited from some generous donations of furnishings and supplies from community members. The most conspicuous of those gifts was a beautiful pool table, courtesy of an ACT board member. 
R.K. Miles, a Middlebury lumberyard, gave ACT a great deal on materials and some helpful advice on how to use them. Jeff Tidd of R.K. Miles even came in on a Saturday to help Benjamin and ACT board member Jake Burnham install the kitchen. Complete with appliances, sink and sturdy counter, the kitchen serves up healthy snacks and occasional meals in the main gathering room of the center, where an average of around 14 young people congregate each weekday afternoon to socialize, do homework, play pool and play games at a couple of computer stations. Benjamin said the center is currently serving a combined total of around 60 — a number he expects to grow steadily.
Devotees of the former teen center at 94 Main St. notice an immediate difference when they enter the new facility at 77 Mary Hogan Drive: It’s full of natural light that is accentuated by the warm, light colors of the walls. The former center was devoid of windows, imparting a dank and dreary vibe. The new center is blessed with many windows, resulting in a more inviting and upbeat atmosphere that has definitely served as a magnet, Morrison said. Whereas 94 Main drew mostly boys, the new center is attracting more girls, to the point where there’s now a 50-50 gender ratio these days, according to Morrison.
“It feels ‘homey’ here, not stiff and rigid,” she said.
Benjamin and Morrison are pleased with the center’s proximity to playing fields, a basketball court and Mary Hogan Elementary School.
“The space is awesome,” Benjamin said of the current situation. “Teens can play yard games, hang out outside, grab a racket and play some tennis.”
Cole Field, an MUHS freshman, was among those enjoying center amenities last Tuesday. He, too, remembers the dismal décor at 94 Main.
“I like that this is new and more appealing to people,” said Field, an Orwell resident who attends MUHS through a school choice program. The teen center gives him to prime spot to stay while waiting for his ride back home.
“It’s a better location,” Field said of the warming hut, adding its look seems to beckon, “I want to go in there.”
Middlebury Union middle and high school students travel about the same distance to the new teen center as they did to 94 Main. Several students use the Addison County Transit Resources bus to get there.
Thanks to in large part to Morrison’s and Benjamin’s efforts, the teen center has become far more than simply a safe, supervised place in which young folks can hang out after school. The center has been running some great, optional programming for visitors, including a drawing class taught by the Middlebury Studio School, a comic book workshop, a makers club in association with the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, yoga classes, guitar lessons, drop-in arts and crafts, and “Clean and Green,” where participants are invited to make body care products like soap, shampoo and lotions using simple, natural ingredients.
Such programs — a few of which carry a modest fee — also give the teen center greater exposure to young people who might otherwise take a pass on an after-school option, organizers noted.
Five Middlebury College students have been helping out at the center at various times, either through work study assignments or as volunteers. The teens tend to look up to the college students as mentors, Morrison said.
And while the center is designed for older youths, Mary Hogan kids — particularly the 6th graders — are getting a glimpse of a future after-school destination. As a preview, each of the Mary Hogan 6th-grade classes got a tour of the teen center this past May. Several of those now-former 6th-graders have become regular visitors as current 7th-graders.
“We know there’s going to be that pipeline (of future visitors),” Morrison said, gazing at the Mary Hogan Elementary building next door. She pointed to cases where younger siblings becoming excited that “my brother went (to the center), and I’m going to get to go, too.’”
Members of the Middlebury elementary school board welcomed the teen center with open arms, Benjamin noted.
“They couldn’t have been nicer,” Benjamin recalled. “They were just so glad there was a place for kids to go after school.”
School board Chairwoman Ruth Hardy looks forward to an amicable and fruitful relationship between the teen center and Mary Hogan Elementary.
“We’re pleased that the Addison Central Teens have found a new home next to the Mary Hogan School,” she said. “The center is such an important resource for older kids in our community. We look forward to exploring opportunities for partnerships between our own students and the teens across the field. Our young kids look up to their older peers, and adore having them visit and help out at the school.”
More information about ACT and its programs can be found at
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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