Pet shelter scrapped to create teen center
Town Councilors Monday unanimously agreed to establish a teen headquarters for at least one year in a two-bay garage behind the Town Offices on Southwest Avenue to supplement the use of the Grange Hall/Senior Center on West Street that has been used for Jamestown Teen Center in recent months.
The garage originally was to be renovated by volunteers for use as an animal shelter under the coordination of Councilor Barbara Szepatowski, operator of the Paws and Claws pet retail and services center on Narragansett Avenue.
Szepatowski, who has become an advocate for town youth as well as animals and other causes, volunteered to reorganize plans for the animal shelter, in conjunction with support from the volunteers she organized for that project. "I love them both, but obviously the kids have to come first," Szepatowski said.
She projected the renovations, at no cost to the town, to be done by the animal group volunteers with help from the teens themselves, can be completed by early July. She said her shop would seek to provide animal shelter services to the extent possible with her landlord's permission.
In recent years, the garage has served as a storage facility for seasonal parks and recreation equipment, now stored at various town locations.
As Town Teen Headquarters, the space will serve as the office for Youth Co-ordinator Melissa Minto, who has been using her car for office and storage needs. The building will also be used weekdays from approximately 2 to 6 p.m. for after-school activities.
The Grange Hall will continue to be used for special events, particularly on weekends. Weekday evening events are not planned for school nights. Plans for weekday non-school nights were not made or listed yet.
"The co-ordinator and the teens are forced to move around and plan their activities around everyone's schedule but their own," Szepatowski said.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser assured the councilors that town employees at the Southwest Offices and Recreation Director Matt Bolles support the concept of a teen headquarters at that location for a year or two. All staff members and councilors agree that a permanent location, such as the Community Center, is the eventual goal. "They (teens) need attention, monitoring, and coordination. We are happy to commit to a year or so," Keiser said.
"A place to go"
Headquarter activities will include help with homework, mentoring, and, one day a week, availability of the school department's student assistant counselor. The facility also is intended to be for leisure activities, and to be simply a "place to go." Some come just for the cookies the kids bake themselves, it was noted.
Bolles and Szepatowski reported that the youth program in the past year has established that many youngsters want and need such a place for times they are
not involved in the limited activities on the island, as well as for when parents are not yet home from work. The teens currently have the option of participating once a week in Newport youth activities.
Some participants are "at risk" in terms of being unsupervised and not otherwise involved, Bolles and Szepatowski said. Szepatowski related a recent involvement of a youth in community service who expressed enthusiasm for that project. She suggested that person represented an example of success in the making.
Bolles emphasized that departmental philosophy, plus goals of the grant program, are to "strengthen family" and to be a supplement for parental supervision and homework monitoring, not a substitute for it.
Town space limits
The shuffling, reshuffling, and competition for town space for various programs is just one example of a serious lack of space for municipal needs. Bolles said the redistribution of equipment from the garage is less than ideal, but noted that the youth needs merit priority. He also reminded the councilors of the ongoing inability of his department to provide requested programs because of space limitations.
The space problems will be addressed again June 5 at the annual financial town meeting when voters are asked to approve funds for the new consolidated town hall on the current base site on Narragansett Avenue. With approval for that construction, Town Offices on Southwest Avenue will move to the new building and decisions will be made about the use of the Southwest Avenue building.
Szepatowski and Bolles said use of the renovated garage for the teens is intended to be a temporary solution, pending a decision about expansion of the Community Center on Conanicus Avenue across from East Ferry. Councilors briefly discussed whether that would creation of a second story, or expansion otherwise, but decided that specifics were premature. They voted unanimously that the teen needs are immediate and agreed to the renovated-garage plan, subject to ongoing evaluations and primarily a one-year review.
Then Szepatowski and Bolles explained the need for a dedicated, centralized youth office and base. They said the joint use of the Grange, as guests of the Senior Center operation, has worked well to the point that it showed the success of the evolving youth services programs.
They explained that space limitations at the Grange Hall, however, did not enable storage of the teens' materials and equipment, nor was there room for an office for the town teen co-ordinator. Bolles pointed out that the needs and successes of the co-ordinator have grown from a part-time to full-time position, and qualifies the town for a grant for the program.
Councilman Michael Schnack, who worked with Szepatowski in defining some aspects of the project, reported that state building requirements "actually are stricter for pets than for people."
Councilman William Kelly urged town officials to finish organizing the auction he has been pushing for to dispose of all town equipment that is not being used, as
one more way to help make efficient use of municipal space.
Council President David Long was enthusiastic after being assured that staff would be responsible for the operation, renovations would be done at no cost to the town, and "It's workable."
Council Vice President Julio DiGiando was less enthusiastic, because of concerns about taking over parental responsibilities and about participation. Szepatowski promised it would easily be possible to revert to the animal shelter plans if the youths do not make use of the option.
Teens asked for it
Two months ago, eight middle schoolers gave a presentation to the council about their first "caf night" program. They outlined their two years of activities and development and their being hosted at the Grange Hall/Senior Center.
The program evolved from a request from eighth-graders for an after-school program after they studied local teen isolation and boredom because the town has no movie theater, mall, bowling alley, or transportation.
The councilors praised them in March for their progress to date, and for their presentation. The teens have helped organize local events, field trips, and programs ranging from roller skating and yoga to human rights and the prevention ofunderaged drinking.
The grant for the local program is from the Rhode Island Foundation's Newport County Fund, and it includes a role for island teens in the Newport County Youth Council, a peer support network.