WESTBROOK – My Place Teen Center has meant a lot of things to a lot of people over the years. For the last 20 years, the center has provided teens from all over the city and surrounding area an accepting place to come after school.
“We are a safe haven. I don’t think that can be understated. Kids come here to be safe. They come here to keep out of trouble,” My Place Teen Center Executive Director Donna Dwyer said.
My Place Teen Center was founded in 1998 as Mission Possible Teen Center in response to a shocking teen suicide in 1996 and results of a survey of area youth regarding alcohol and drug use that the former Westbrook Hospital had commissioned.
The idea for the center came from Bruce Dyer, a former pastor at First Baptist Church in Westbrook who has worked as a counselor at Westbrook High School for the last 17 years. He reached out to a number of people he knew in the community about starting a center that provided services for at-risk youth.
Dyer said the group could have tried to work with groups like the Boys & Girls Club or Big Brothers Big Sisters to start a location in the city, but wanted to make the center uniquely Westbrook.
“Everyone had a role in it. My role was to gather people together and everybody gave a little something, so I see this as truly a team effort on the part of some key Westbrook people. Each of us, in our own way, made connections in the community and made aware the needs of young people here,” Dyer said.
The teen center was set to get a $130,000 federal grant to get it up and running, but two days after the award was announced, there was a glitch in the application. Dyer said that glitch “withdrew the money as fast as it was awarded to us.”
Luckily, the Cornelia Warren Association came forward with a $120,000 donation. Dyer said that donation really “energized a lot of people” and spurred in-kind donations to turn a space on the first floor of the Dana Warp Mill into a teen center.
The initial effort, set in motion a center that, 20 years later would, as Dwyer said, provide “character development, academic excellence and civic engagement” five hours a day Monday through Friday year-round. The center began offering hot meals at dinner during the school year and at lunch during school vacations, eight years ago and served more than 9,000 meals last year. Recently center staff began developing a curriculum around food service, so students learn culinary and restaurant skills.
Dwyer said while the center offers academic support for the students, its strength is “social and emotional learning.”
“We are worried about who these kids are now and who they will be as adults and what the skill sets are that they need now to thrive and what skill sets they are going to need as an adult.” Dwyer said.
Dyer said Dwyer has been able to “grow the budget, continue and expand the vision and create a center that provides life healing and hope for kids and that changes lives.”
Westbrook Middle School student Ransom Johnson, 12, has been coming to the teen center for the last year to play games and catch up with friends and has found his place at the center.
“The staff cares about you if you need anything,” he said. “They are just there for the kids for whatever they need.”
Last year, the center served more than 450 teenagers ages 10 to 18, primarily from the city of Westbrook. The center, she said, typically sees 40 to 70 youth a day, some of whom stay the entire day and some just for an hour or so.
The ride has not been easy for the center or for Dwyer, who came on board as executive director seven years ago. When the center moved to its current location in 14 years ago, the building, a former church, was in rough shape. The organization started as Mission Possible Teen Center operating out of a space in the Dana Warp Mill but moved to Main Street in 2004 due to space constraints at the mill location.
“There was not one single nook or cranny that didn’t need to be renovated, according to an engineer’s report,” Dwyer said. Funding from the Cornelia Warren Foundation and other groups has been “critical in keeping up the bricks and mortar” of the building.
The organization has owned the building outright since late 2014 when the New Generation Foundation of Maine gave My Place Teen Center a $325,000 grant to pay off its mortgage and do exterior improvement to the building.
In fact, grants and other donations have been the lifeline for the teen center. Dwyer said although the center does get taxpayer funding — possibly $60,000 for the upcoming fiscal budget — 90 percent of the funding for the teen center comes from outside the city. She said that she starts the fiscal year only knowing where 30 percent of the center’s funding is going to come from. For the last five years, the center has asked the city for $100,000 in funding and has only received about 40 percent of that request. She said the city used to provide $50,000 when My Place Teen Center served a third of the kids and one-ninth of the meals it does today.
Dwyer said the “fact the teen center has been able to survive and in someways thrive, is a miracle. It is hard to be a non-profit. It is hard to provide free services to kids.”
In 2016, My Place Teen Center was named the beneficiary of the TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K, in which the organization received $30,000 from road race proceeds.
“It’s persistence (in finding funding) despite rampant rejection. This is categorical across the non-profit world. There are a lot of nice, caring funders, but they are not year-over-year consistent or at the level to fully meet the need,” she said.
The success over the years, Dwyer said has been due to the many people who have supported the center with their funding and their time.
Dwyer said last year 120 volunteers contributed more than 6,000 volunteer hours mentoring, cooking, giving academic help or connecting with the children in other ways. The number of volunteers is always up year after year.
“They enjoy getting to know the kids and know they are helping them and changing the trajectory of a kid’s life,” Dwyer said.
Dyer, who was president of the board in the organization’s early years, said through the years “the community has embraced the opportunity to support, care for and love youth and provide them with a safe place where they can grow the thrive.”
Don Esty, a retired educator in Falmouth, is happy to volunteer his time to the center.
“The teen center gives kids a place for social and emotional growth, role modeling and basic necessities. That’s why I support it,” he said.
Vice Chairman of the My Place Teen Center Board of Directors Lori Whitlock has been involved with the teen center for the last decade, including the last eight as a board member.
“It’s not just a drop off center. The kids are learning how to be good community members. I’ve seen a lot of transformation in the center, the kids and the programming,” Whitlock said.
She remembers a few years back, she was tending the garden when a group of three boys walked toward the center. As the group approached the front door, one of the boys looked over to see what she was doing and started making rude comments. Within five minutes of entering the building, he was asked to leave because he was misbehaving. Whitlock saw him again shortly thereafter but in a much different mindset. After two weeks at the center, he was smiling and an active participant in center programming.
“Without the teen center, you wonder what might happen to him, and the other kids, going forward,” she said.
“As for why am I still involved? How can I not be,” Whitlock added. “I am a Westbrook resident.”
To celebrate its 15th anniversary in 2013, the organizations adopted a new name — My Place Teen Center — and a new logo of the building’s iconic red doors. Now, after 20 years of providing for the youth in and around Westbrook, My Place Teen Center may be expanding its programming into the Biddeford area. They’ll need to find the right location first. The organization is in the final stages of securing the former St. Andres Church on Bacon Street.
“We knew we could be serving even more kids. Biddeford has been very interested in our business and programming model for the last three years and came knocking on our red door,” Dwyer said.
It is not uncommon, she said for other communities to inquire about “how we do what we do and make it work” and tour the center.
The expansion into Biddeford is expected by July 2020.
Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mkelleynews.
Youth from the teen center, then known as Mission Possible, march down Bridge Street during a downtown parade in 1998 (Courtesy photo)
For the last 20 years, the My Place Teen Center has been a place to go for many teenagers in the city to connect with their peers and get social, emotional and academic support. (Courtesy photo)
Now located at 755 Main Street, My Place Teen Center was started in the Dana Warp Mill as Mission Possible. (Courtesy photo)