December 21, 2009
Teen Center cuts leave hunger pains
Money for weekly dinners at the center cut in half in 2010 budget
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
AmeriCorps volunteer Megan Wheeler, center, helps Travis Wood, 13, left, and John Saxe, 16, bake peanut butter blossom cookies Friday while getting ready for a holiday party at the Cortland Teen Center.
Travis Wood and John Saxe arrived at Cortland County Youth Bureau’s Teen Center hours before a holiday dinner Friday to put their cooking skills to work.
Wood, a seventh-grader at Cortland Junior High School, was forming peanut butter cookie dough into balls and placing them in lines on a cookie pan. Saxe, a 10th-grader at Cortland High School, had helped to make buckeyes — peanut butter and graham crackers covered in chocolate.
Ten local teenagers attended the free holiday dinner, which included baked ziti, meatballs, garlic bread and salad.
The Teen Center offers dinners for local teenagers two to three times a week. Some teenagers help to prepare the meals, and others show up just before dinner is served. They are all required to wash their dishes after dinner, said Matt Marcey, a youth services specialist for the Teen Center.
The 2010 city general fund budget, passed by the city Common Council last week, will reduce the budget for supplies for the open kitchen program used to serve dinners from $5,000 in 2009 to $2,500 in 2010.
The reduction is part of $25,000 in cuts to the Teen Center and $111,000 in programming cuts to the Youth Bureau, which operates city pools and sponsors the Teen Center, youth sports leagues and field trips.
Those cuts are in addition to staffing reductions. One Youth Bureau employee retired early and another was reduced from full-time to part time.
Marcey said Youth Bureau staff will pursue grants and fundraising campaigns to get more money for dinners in 2010.
Youth Bureau Director John McNerney added that the Youth Center owns a community garden on south Main Street that can produce free produce for meals during warmer months and that the Youth Center can ask for donations from restaurants and grocery stores.
“It’s going to have an impact on the program. There’s no doubt about it. But we’re going to have to be creative,” McNerney said.
Teenagers raise funds for the Teen Center by having several chicken barbecues every year, selling candy bars and having yard sales, Marcey said.
Up to about a year ago, the kitchen in the Teen Center was used as a soda bar, where youths bought snacks and beverages. Local teenagers worked part-time manning the soda bar.
The internship program that paid these youths was eliminated this year to save $5,000, partly because the kitchen is being used differently now.
Teen Center staff noticed that a teen center in Syracuse had an open kitchen and liked the idea. The open kitchen allows the Teen Center to serve healthy meals instead of snacks, teach youths basic cooking skills and eat with other youths and adults who work at the center.
“A lot of our kids don’t have sit-down dinner at home,” Marcey said, noting that parents are busy working more to make ends meet.
“This might be the only place where these kids have an opportunity to actually sit down with a group of people and have dinner,” he said.
Other cuts to the Teen Center include the elimination of a $16,500 police outreach program, in which police officers visited the Teen Center on Friday and Saturday nights and city parks during the summer to interact with teenagers, and the elimination of $1,000 in training costs for staff.
Marcey said the Teen Center has a core group of about 15 to 20 youths who visit the center every week, as well as youths who show up for certain types of events, such as dinners, field trips or band nights.
When no special events are planned, youths play pool, ping pong, foosball and Nintendo Wii at the Teen Center. Marcey said that by socializing and playing games with the teenagers, he earns their trust, so that they can talk to him about problems in their lives.
“Pretty much any issue that teenagers have, we encounter at some point,” Marcey said.
Staff members do a lot of informal counseling and refer youths to local agencies, such as the Seven Valley Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse and the Jacobus Center, that can better help them with certain problems, he said.
Staff members say their greatest challenge is overcoming negative perceptions that people in the community have about the Teen Center.
“We’re well aware that there’s a little bit of a stigma attached to the facility,” Marcey said, attributing the stigma to misinformation.
For example, Marcey said, a few years ago Teen Center employees spotted an adult outside the Teen Center who they thought did not belong there and called the police. When a police officer came, the man attacked the officer, and four teenagers from the Youth Center pulled the attacker off the officer, he said. The city police gave the teenagers an award after the incident.
But as the story was circulated, Marcey said he heard people mistakenly saying the teenagers had attacked the police officer.
Erica Danega, youth services coordinator for the Teen Center, said she encourages parents who are skeptical about the Teen Center to talk to staff members or attend events with their children.
“Any opportunity we have to get rid of one of those stigmas that’s out there, I totally embrace that,” Danega said.
Colh Degouff, 16, said she came to the holiday dinner because she likes ziti. She said she used to come to the Teen Center with her friends more frequently when they were a little younger. Now, they usually spend time outside the Marketplace Mall on Main Street during warmer months, she said.
“When you have nowhere to go and you’re cold, it’s kind of the place to come,” Degouff said. “You don’t want to hang out at home because you’re home all the time, but when it’s too cold to go anywhere else, come here.”
“There have been fights here and stuff, so people think it’s a bad place, but it’s really not because wherever you go bad things are going to happen,” she said.
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