For 12 years, the CanTeen bounced from place to place, from rental to rental, never able to find a home to call its own.
On Sunday, April 22, the teen center celebrated the grand opening of its permanent home at 6046 Route 31, right next to Cicero-North Syracuse High School. The festivities included speakers ranging from local dignitaries to past and present program participants.
While the speakers were varied, the theme was the same: It’s good to be home.
“This type of occasion will never happen again,” said Toni Brauchle, the CanTeen’s executive director. “We will celebrate milestones and anniversaries and many, many, many other things, but we will never, ever have to celebrate the grand opening of another home. This is it. This is home.”
The house was purchased in 2011 with a $250,000 state grant secured by then-Assemblyman Al Stirpe. That money, along with $25,000 in funds from the Kaitlin Kozlowski Memorial Fund and help from the Community Fund and the Friends of the CanTeen, also went toward renovating the house so that it would better suit the needs of the center, which serves anywhere from 60 to 100 kids from 2 to 6 p.m. every weekday. The renovations were done by an all-volunteer labor force supplied by local labor unions, coordinated by Greg Lancette of the Central and Northern Building Trades Council.
“This started out as a lunch with Assemblyman Stirpe, Toni and Jody [Rogers, Cicero’s Youth Bureau, Parks and Recreation director] at the Coppertop Tavern,” Lancette said. “We heard about the vision. We heard about the dream. It was Brad Ward and myself. We understood the need — a larger space, a permanent space. And all of the reasons matched the reasons we try to match up our projects with our community groups.”
In order to make the project happen, Lancette said he did something the CanTeen does very well: he asked young and old to work together.
“This group here, it interacts very well with the seniors in the community,” he said. “One of the things we did, we actually, as many of the trade unions, we integrated our young with our old. We had our apprentices, who are learning the craft and trade over a multi-year period, working with our retired workers that could give the time to the project, and it was a perfect blend. It went hand in hand with the mission statement of the CanTeen.”
The effort to coordinate those workers was undertaken by Paul Leone, a retiree from the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union, and his work did not go unnoticed by the kids; they presented him with the Shooting Star Award by the CanTeen’s Teen Council as thanks for his efforts.
“[He’s] been here every single day to make sure this place has been open for us,” said Breanna Goldthwait, a member of the Teen Council. “If you weren’t here every day, I don’t think it would be open.”
The Teen Council also presented Rogers with a gift as thanks for her efforts, as did the Cicero Senior Center. The teens also handed out certificates to the volunteer construction workers who helped construct their new home.
In addition, the Cicero Senior Center announced that it will make a donation of $500 to the CanTeen for continued operating expenses.
“If we are capable, we will be giving them $500 every year,” said Judy Dickson, coordinator of the Senior Center. She invited the community to match the donation.
The most moving moments of the day came from the CanTeen’s participants themselves. Several stood up to speak about what the CanTeen has meant to them, and what it means to finally have a permanent home.
“I started school last year because I was home-schooled, and I was like, ‘Oh, no, what am I going to do?’” said Melissa Mizzouli, a C-NS sophomore. “And a couple of people told me about the CanTeen. And I made so many friends. I went from being home-schooled with no friends to being here every single day with a new family. After things have happened in my family and people started falling away, I came here, and I had people who comforted me, and it was an amazing feeling. That’s what the CanTeen means to me — it’s my home away from home.”
Her thoughts were echoed by senior Josh Heffernan.
“I can’t see myself never coming here,” Heffernan said. “Every day I look forward to coming here to see Miss Toni, everybody else, and, yes, even Jody if she’s here. Honestly, this place is my place. It’s my heart, my soul, my everything. I may not have been here during the construction, but I always kept a close eye. I’ve always had a broken family, always apart, bad stuff happening. Even this Wednesday, I have to go to my third wake in the past year. But Miss Toni’s like my mother, and I love her to death… I actually thought I wasn’t going to be able to come here before I graduated, but now I can think happily that all my friends can have a good home. More than that, when I come back from college, I can come back and visit. I can come back and volunteer and help. And that just makes me want to cry.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.