BRUNSWICK — During the first five years it was open, only about five or six teenagers would spend their afternoons at the Brunswick Teen Center on the second floor of the town-owned People Plus building at 35 Union St.
Fast forward to its 10th anniversary, and “a slow day is 18 kids,” Stacy Frizzle, executive director of People Plus, said last week. In 2016, the center logged 2,000 visits.
The Center’s popularity has prompted Frizzle to look for a larger space, which would alleviate overcrowding, make way for amenities, and accommodate a boom in membership expected from a larger-than-usual incoming sixth-grade class in Brunswick schools.
At its Dec. 19 meeting, the Town Council authorized applying to the state for a Community Block Development Grant that would provide up to $300,000 to help Frizzle expand the Teen Center by an additional 4,000 square feet.
The expansion would increase the second floor above the section of the building that faces Cumberland Street.
The center occupies a single 2,000-square-foot room on the second floor, which program coordinator Jordan Cardone said is barely enough to contain the nine computers, four televisions, dining area, pool table, and arts-and-crafts corner.
She said without a proper kitchen, it’s difficult to prepare and serve a hot meal every afternoon, which is an essential part of the program.
Cardone and her assistant, Donna LePlant, rely on a microwave, griddle, toaster oven and minimal cabinet and refrigerator space to store and prepare food donations. Because they don’t have a dishwasher, Cardone is forced to use disposable dishes and utensils.
The center also lacks upstairs bathrooms.
“The biggest thing we’re missing here is a place for physical activity,” Cardone added, especially because the program is designed for students who no longer have recess during the day.
The Teen Center grew out of a grassroots effort to provide a safe, after-school haven for teens who had few places to go after the final school bell rang around 2 p.m.
A task force formed, and, in 2006, the newly minted Teen Center moved into the basement of the old People Plus Building, at the corner of Noble Street.
In 2009, the program moved with People Plus to the corner of Cumberland and Union streets. Its hours are synced with the school schedule, open after school ends to students in sixth grade and higher, from 2:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
Cardone has been the program’s coordinator since its inception.
Over years of building trust with the teens who attend the program, she has cultivated a safe and supportive space that has contributed to the program’s rising popularity.
Her efforts have also increased the number of girls who attend from zero to about half the total number of teens.
“My philosophy has been, ‘it’s their place,'” Cardone said Tuesday.
It was 2:15 p.m. in the afternoon, the first day the center was open after the 11-day winter school vacation. Cardone said she wasn’t sure what to expect from the teens who would arrive in less than 20 minutes, and she was darting around the center, putting out snacks and cleaning up odds and ends.
“Once they start coming here, they tend to stay for years,” she continued. “I would say that almost every child that comes in has something in their life that restricts other social opportunities they might otherwise have access to.”
Those restrictions are often socio-economic. The Teen Center is in what Frizzle said is the poorest neighborhood in town.
Frizzle told the Town Council that one of the major reasons the center wants to expand where it is – as opposed to finding a new space – is to stay in the neighborhood where it is needed.
“Location is key …,” she said. “You’re in the thick of it.”
Cardone said that when the center moved from Noble Street to Union Street, the program lost kids who were no longer within walking distance; she fears the same thing will happen if the center moves again.
“We would lose the kids we have here, and these are the kids who need it,” she said.
Conveniently, the school bus drops students off at the corner of Cumberland and Union, and kids are able to get off the bus and go straight inside, where they will hang out and eat until 5:30 p.m., when they can walk home.
Frizzle made that argument to the Town Council, too, when councilors asked whether the program might find a new space.
Now that the CDBG letter of intent has been sent, she will wait to hear from the state to see if the town can apply for the grant.
“My goal is to not ask the town of Brunswick for a dime,” she said, acknowledging that additional matching funds would still have to be raised.
On Tuesday, one boy arrived before the bus did. He made a beeline for one of the computers.
Minutes later, a rumble could be heard from the stairwell. “Here they come,” he said.
Progam coordinator Jordan Cardone has watched the Brunswick Teen Center nearly triple its membership size since its inception in 2006. Staff are looking into a state grant that would allow the center to expand.