Freeport benefit reflects community's generosity

FREEPORT – After decorating rocking chairs, canoe paddles and small tables, the annual benefit auction for Freeport’s Port Teen Center this year will feature hand-painted and hand-sculpted mirrors in an event called “Sitting Pretty: The Mirror is the Canvas.”

Organizer Randall Thomas, one of the charter members of the volunteer group No Drama Mamas, hopes the mirrors will reflect the ongoing needs of the center and bring attention to the rich artistic community of the tri-town area.

“It’s an amazing project and the interest grows each year,” said Thomas. “It’s truly a community effort.”

The idea for an auction came five years ago, when Thomas was thinking of ways to raise money for the center. She settled on the concept of repurposing chairs from the Corsican Restaurant in Freeport, which was in the process of buying new ones. After soliciting both teen and adult artists, she took the “new” chairs and auctioned them off. The event was so popular, Thomas decided it should be an annual happening.

“We saw the level of involvement and people were asking what they should paint the next year,” she said.

Thomas said the auction is a large part of the funding for the teen center, which has one full-time staff member and a host of volunteers. Located in the Freeport Community Center on Depot Street and a component of the Regional School Unit 5 district, the center offers teenagers – regardless of where they live – a place to hang out, relax and be themselves in a supportive, supervised environment. Among the amenities, the Port Teen Center has flat-screen televisions, a Foosball table and a selection of video games. It is, above all, a safe place for teenagers, which gives peace of mind to parents.

“I think it’s just a wonderful thing to have,” said Kristin Woodbury, whose son John is a regular at the center. “I know where he is and can trust he’s not wandering around.”

For Freeport High senior Colby Hilton, the Port Teen Center Is a “really cool” place to visit.

“It’s good that we have something like this in town. It’s a great option for down time,” said Hilton, 18.

The center is open every school day from 2:20-6 p.m. and averages roughly 300 teenage visitors per school year. In the summer teenagers can also take advantage of various workshops and outings, such as trips to Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, all organized by Port Teen Center volunteers.

The importance of after-school activities is an issue many communities nationwide are confronting. While traditional after-school options such as organized sports are considered important to an overall educational experience, “down time” is an undervalued component of a teenager’s daily life, according to William J. Doherty and Barbara Carlson, authors of “Putting Family First.” In an interview with the Gallup Inc. organization, the pair said family life revolves around the children’s activities, rather than the activities revolving around the family’s schedules, which should include unscheduled activities for the peace of mind of everyone.

Thomas has a deeply personal connection to the Port Teen Center. Her son Max was one of the teenagers who was part of the group that originally started the push to create an after-school gathering spot. Max Thomas died of cancer after his sophomore year in high school, but his mother continues to volunteer her time to see his vision come to fruition.

Of the 70 artists participating in this year’s auction, roughly 60 percent are teenagers and 40 percent adults, said Thomas.

“We have no limits on creativity,” she said. “We only ask the artists to follow a simple guideline: please, nothing your grandmother would find offensive.”

In 2012, L.L. Bean donated 100 paddles for the auction, which netted the Port Teen Center $17,000. For the mirror project, Portland Glass has donated materials.

Thomas is hoping for a repeat of last year but maintains the true spirit of the auction is in the creativity it inspires.

“What could be better than a teenager’s imagination at work?” asked Thomas.

“Sitting Pretty” sponsor Kristen Bernhardt of Freeport Hardware holds one of this year’s hand-painted mirrors donated by local artist Jean Wyman. Staff photo by Matthew Stilphen