With the opening of a new community center in Morrisville last month, the village has another place for teens to go after school, and another place for adults to go to be with like-minded adults.
Billi Dunham and Krista Bologna think they’ve figured out an equation to making sure kids and adults have a place to come together and play, learn and share. It’s a pretty famous equation, actually — E=MC2.
That acronym stands for Everyone Equals Morristown Community Center, and it’s aiming to be a place for everyone, from pre-teens to adults learning how to be parents. Located at 26 Union St. in a refurbished garage, it’s just a block off the main drag, and a quick walk from school.
From 2:30 to 5 p.m. every day after school, E=MC2 is the more boisterous sibling to the Lamoille County Youth Center, located at 85 Upper Main Street, in the basement of the United Community Church. Both have their fans, and there’s certain to be some migrating back and forth, depending on the moods of the kids.
Why it’s important
When school lets out at 3 p.m. and parents don’t finish work until 5, kids have a few hours free after school.
It’s crucial that they have somewhere to go, says Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families.
After-school programs are “a third place for learning,” Murphy said, where kids can socialize with their friends and get some casual mentoring from adults other than parents and teachers, in a more relaxed setting than a school.
“It’s really important for social and emotional development to be socializing after school,” Murphy said.
And, it helps parents to know their kids are being looked after, even when they’re not at school.
“There’s actually no downside to a good after-school program,” Murphy said.
After-school options for kids also help reduce their risk of falling prey to substance abuse, says Jessica Bickford, coordinator of Healthy Lamoille Valley.
“In after-school programs, youth are in a supportive, supervised environment where they are learning new skills. This time allows them to build quality relationships with adult role models who care about their well-being and interests,” she said.
“After-school programs also allow for skill development and mastery. We know that youth do better when they are invested in doing something that they enjoy. They fill their time with positive activities that create a positive sense of self. This joy in activity counters the risks leading to substance misuse,” Bickford said.
After-school programs help kids feel more part of their communities, said Holly Morehouse, executive director of Vermont Afterschool, a support organization for after-school programs across the state.
Last year’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, taken by middle- and high-school students statewide, revealed that 61 percent of kids felt they were welcomed and valued by their communities, and that number rose to 71 percent for kids who attended after-school programs, Morehouse said.
The new kid on the block
Last month, in the second or so week of E=MC2’s operations, drawn by free pizza, a gaggle of junior-high boys played video games. Some of them sat on big brown beanbag chairs before a large-screen television taking turns on football video game Madden 2018, while others spread out on leather chairs and dropped into a Fortnite battle royale on state-of-the-art gaming laptops.
White-erase boards displayed signups for the video games, as well as for the pool, table tennis, foosball and air hockey tables. All of these toys, with their still-new toy smells, were arranged in what used to be a spacious two-bay garage.
The concrete floor, metal walls and high ceilings makes for a loud and oft-rowdy romper room. Upstairs, organizers are adding spaces: a small kitchen for feeding the teens and, eventually, providing cooking classes for the community; a small movie theater; a computer lab where those Fortniters and anyone needing a laptop for internet research or other homework will eventually migrate.
Krista Bologna, E=MC2’s executive director, said that, since the center doesn’t have a licensed day care, anyone under 12 years old has to come in with a parent. Anyone older must have a signed permission form, and can drop by anytime afterward.
“I used to just go home after school and wait for my parents,” said a seventh grader named Dustin, who proceeded to recall a best-of-five air hockey match that had just gone down.
Bologna chuckled when it was pointed out that everyone in the E=MC2 space was a junior-high boy, saying she and other organizers have been trying to figure out a way to bring in more girls.
A place of their own
Lamoille County Youth Center looks like the basement in a cool parent’s house, packed with stuff kids like — table tennis, pool table, a TV, a PlayStation, a foosball table and frozen mini-pizzas galore.
One kid, chatting on his cellphone at the youth center, told a friend he was at his “second home, and right now, (he’s) in the living room,’” said Bonnie McDermott, director of the youth center.
McDermott spends every Monday through Thursday afternoon with the kids at the Lamoille County Youth Center, usually assisted by staff member Carol Calenberg. Both have been working for the youth center for three years.
As kids have gotten used to McDermott and Calenberg’s presence, they’ve begun to think of the youth center as a home away from home, she said.
The youth center is open to kids from fifth grade through senior year of high school, and is free to the community.
Its $16,000 operating budget is supported in large part — $12,000 — by town-meeting appropriations by Morristown taxpayers.
The rest is made up by donations from area organizations, said the Rev. Dr. Marisa Laviola, pastor at the United Community Church in Morristown, which houses the youth center.
Despite its location in a church basement, the Lamoille County Youth Center is nonreligious, Laviola emphasized; she rarely gets involved with the program. The youth center has a six-person board of directors.
“We see it as a big mission of the church to help youth,” Laviola said.
The youth center welcomes food donations, since many of the kids who come through its doors are food-insecure, McDermott said.
Kids can help themselves to food from the fridge and freezer, and McDermott puts out extra for kids who need to take some home.
There are rules, of course — three kids to a couch, no public displays of affection, no earbuds on the eating surface, no verbal abuse, no violence or loitering, no games with violent or sexual content, and two adults need to be present at all times.
“We stay consistent with the rules,” and since kids want to be able to keep coming to the youth center, they stick to them, for the most part, McDermott said.
“They’re pretty decent,” she said. “I want them to be able to be good citizens and treat each other with respect.”
‘A safe adult in their lives’
When kids don’t stick to the rules, they get a warning before they’re asked to leave. Typically, they can come back the next day.
McDermott says kids see her as a “safe” adult, someone they can talk to about school, their friends and what’s going on in their lives.
She discourages gossip when she hears it, but is happy to be a sounding board for kids about their struggles.
“Our goal is to be a safe adult in their lives. It’s important to have adults other than family we can trust,” McDermott said. Besides, “I like their wit.”
And they like the stability.
“We’re not going anywhere, and that’s important to some of them,” McDermott said.
Tiffany Parker, 15, a freshman at Peoples Academy, began coming to the youth center three years ago after she discovered it with a friend.
“I like how there’s lots of things to do,” she said. “We can chill and be free after school. In school, you’re always thinking about doing stuff,” but at the youth center, Tiffany feels like it’s OK to take a load off.
“It’s a great place,” she said. “I love coming here.”
Community decides direction
Billi Dunham, the E=MC2 president, said that middle-school kids, for instance, don’t always get out of their social circles during the normal school day. But, she said, if there’s more of a melting pot of kids at the community center, those relationships can start to blossom back in the school walls, say, with new dining partners during lunch.
A community center also just helps keep kids from getting into trouble, Dunham said. Activities like video games and table tennis — vice president Sunny Brink recently installed a basketball hoop outside that’ll be a lot more popular in a few months — give kids a better place to be, rather than cruising the streets of Morrisville or sitting at home, alone.
“Idle hands are the devil’s plaything,” Dunham said. “I need somewhere for my kid to be, and be supported.”
So, from 2:30 to 5 every school day, E=MC2 is all about the youths. But outside those hours, Dunham and Bologna hope the community center will become a beacon for adults, too.
Already, two groups have been very actively meeting at the center. One of them is called Be, a group of transgender and gender-nonconforming people that meets twice a month. Another is a fatherhood support group that meets on Tuesdays.
“You know, courses on adulting,” Dunham said.
E=MC2 was made possible by a Promise Community Grant. The $150,000 grant, which comes via the Department for Children and Families, and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, was awarded last year to the center’s parent group, Mo’ Resilient, which is working on a separate goal of 100 percent kindergarten readiness.
Now that they have a space, the sky’s the limit for the E=MC2 organizers. Cooking classes. Coding seminars. According to Bologna, those are a couple of ideas that could bear fruit in 2019. It all depends on what the people want.
“We don’t get to determine what this is,” Dunham said. “Our community lets us know what it is.”