Guest commentary: My Place Teen Center well worth increase in city funding

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WESTBROOK — On May 1st, the City Council voted down a request to increase funding to My Place Teen Center.

I’m writing to address questions and comments made on social media following this newspaper’s May 4 report of the City Council’s actions.

But first, here are the facts about funding: The teen center receives less city funding than it did six years ago; presently, 5.8 percent of its operational funding. Eight-five percent of the center’s funding has come from sources outside of the city. This funding is not guaranteed.

Now for the questions and comments.

“Why should taxpayers pay for something that volunteers should do? How much is going toward salary? If they are paid, it shouldn’t be a high salary.” Hey. If you know of someone with an MBA, a degree in education, who brings many years of experience advocating for at-risk and special needs kids, who is willing to work an average of 80 hours a week, for free, by all means, let the Board of Directors know who that person is. By the way, the vast majority of non-profits that do work like our teen center have both a CEO/executive director and a development director, and a grant writer. My Place Teen Center has one person who has the skills and the willingness to perform all three jobs.

“They have a new $50k kitchen, new siding and a van. What do they even need a van for?”

I cooked meals once a week in the old kitchen. There was an old gas four-burner stove that caught fire more than once, a broken dishwasher, and two old family-sized refrigerators. And, it was discovered, a maggot infestation. It took two years of fundraising to get a new kitchen, $110K/$30K in-kind donations. I think kids who often depend on the teen center for their only healthy meal should be served food that has been stored at the appropriate temperature, on sanitary dishes, prepared at sanitary food prep stations. Don’t you?

The siding? The old siding had to be removed because the structure underneath was rotting. The project was a grant-funded collaboration between the Cornelia Warren Community Association, a Community Development Block Grant and a funder from Blue Hill, Maine, who also paid off the 40-year mortgage. The labor? No, it was not all donated. Do you know of anyone who would have been able to donate all of the labor and materials for such a big job?

IDEXX used the van as a shuttle before generously donating it. It’s 12 years old and has 130,000 miles on it. It is used to transport food, to run errands, to transport kids to events and occasionally used to transport a child who is unable to find someone to ride him home on a frigid, dark, winter evening.

“The city shouldn’t give $ to a private company.” Really? The city contracts with private firms all the time.

“Where the heck is the money going?” There’s not enough space in this newspaper to share what is provided to the kids, to the Westbrook Community, behind those red doors on Main Street. But I’ll try.

There is a Youth Leadership Academy, the curriculum for which is designed for low-income, high-risk youth to attain essential knowledge of health and wellness with an emphasis on increasing social/emotional skills, such as restraint, in an effort to decrease substance abuse and reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In addition, the curriculum is designed to increase the participants’ knowledge of work ethics, job skills, volunteerism such as community service, and the life skills needed for young people to live independent lives. There’s also a computer lab, help with homework, music lessons, dance lessons, physical fitness activities …

Please visit the center and see for yourself. Read the Annual Report. Browse the myplaceteencenter.org website. Please get the facts before making off-hand comments on social media that are not based in facts.

“Doesn’t the school already provide all of these services?”

Our school system and teachers can only give so much of their time. And they give a lot! For many kids, there is no other place to get a healthy and free meal at night during the school year, no other place to be with friends after school in a safe environment, to learn life skills.

Councilor Chau remarked that he “couldn’t wait to send (his) kids to My Place Teen Center.” He then voted down increasing the city’s funding from six years ago. Councilor Chau: do you donate personally to the center to help ensure its existence?

Council President Rielly essentially said the social services agencies in our city provide important services that the city cannot provide, because the agencies do it better than the city can. However, he has consistently not supported an increase in funding.

Councilor O’Hara, in what was an appalling diatribe by an elected official, said that people (we’re talking kids here) just need to get a “backbone.” Councilor O’Hara, would you like to come to the center and tell that to the face of the child who has experienced heinous sexual abuse, to the child who has held his parent’s head in his lap while that parent was overdosing, to the child who is afraid to set her backpack down, because it holds all of the items she possesses in her world?

Yes, there is only so much money to go around. Yes, budget allocation involves a lot of work and hard decisions. Viewing this from a purely fiscal perspective, would you agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? That investing in these kids now will have a direct impact on our General Assistance budget going forward? And on our police and rescue services budget?

Is this all about My Place Teen Center? No, it is not. Police Chief Roberts asked for an additional $36K to address the city’s heroin and opiate epidemic. Her request was also flatly rejected. We’re talking lives here.

On that note, I’ll end with a story about a young boy who appeared at my workplace last winter. It was the second day in a row he had come into the building, which is an old, converted home located on Stroudwater Street. Turns out he was traveling on his bike, in freezing temperatures. He told us he lived on Spring Street, close to Col. Westbrook Park. An employee brought him home with the intent to speak with a parent. When they arrived, a police vehicle was present, called to the residence for a domestic violence situation.

This city cannot rely solely on the school system, the police and the residents and businesses, that do so generously donate, to take care of these kids. Thank you to the councilors who recognized that and voted Yes on May 1.

Lori Whitlock, a Westbrook resident, is a My Place Teen Center volunteer and funder.