For the last five months, the CanTeen has been homeless.
For a teen center whose mission was to provide a safe place for teens to go, it’s been rough, to say the least.
But on March 14, the doors finally opened to the center’s new home — a spacious split-level with a media room, a full kitchen, a wide-open rec room, his and hers bathrooms, a conference room, office space and more.
“We actually feel like we’re in a home now,” said participant Ashley Bubb.
“It feels like home,” echoed Melissa Mizzoli. “It’s ours. It’s comfortable.”
The building had to undergo extensive renovations before it could be suitable for the teen center to take it over. The house was purchased with grant money from the state as well as a donation from the Kaitlin Kozlowski Memorial Fund; the grant and donation also helped to complete the renovations, as did thousands of hours of volunteer labor. Kozlowski, a 16-year-old Cicero-North Syracuse High School junior, was a CanTeen regular when she was killed in a drunk driving accident in 2005.
Would you like a tour of the CanTeen? Just give Toni Brauchle a call at 699-1391. In addition, the CanTeen’s official grand opening will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 22, with opening remarks at 3 p.m.
“We want the community to see what it’s all about,” Brauchle said. “We want people to take the tour.”
“Considering it was a volunteer workforce for the most part, it really turned out beyond my wildest dreams,” said CanTeen Executive Director Toni Brauchle. “The kids were so excited the first day. Everything here is about the kids. This is their place.”
The center held its “soft” opening on March 14, when Brauchle spread the word through Facebook that the CanTeen was open. The following Monday, March 19, she posted signs at Cicero-North Syracuse High School. About 40 to 50 kids have been showing up daily.
“I’m thinking we’ll probably wind up around 100 a day,” Brauchle said. “That’s where we’ll level off at. We might not see it this spring just because of the weather breaking and all of that stuff, but we’ll have an average of 50 to 60 to 70 a day. The kids are just so excited to finally be open. It’s nice. It’s nice to see them back.”
Brauchle said the kids are most excited to finally have a real home after bouncing around for so long. The CanTeen was forced out of their former building on Route 11 last September when the building’s owner opted not to renew their lease; the group found itself in the same situation in November in Country Max Plaza.
“Having this gives us permanency. It gives the kids permanency,” Brauchle said. “I think probably the biggest issue that we had when we moved around like that was that they felt like second-class citizens… Any time you don’t renew a lease or whatever, they take it personally. It has absolutely nothing to do with them, and it could be for any number of reasons, financial reasons or whatever, but they take it personally. But now, the fact that we have a permanent home that nobody can take away from us, that nobody can lease out from underneath us, whatever the thing is… Even under tough budgetary constraints, if we have to make tough choices, if we have to cut back our hours or whatever, we could do that and still not go anywhere. It gives us a sense of permanency.”
Not that the lack of a home meant a lack of programming. While the CanTeen was without a space, Brauchle and her fellow CanTeen workers were determined to make sure that the kids who participated in the program had something to do.
“We said, we’ll just wing it,” Brauchle said. “So from Thanksgiving until about a month ago, we were going on field trips probably once or twice a week and meeting with the kids to do things with, like, Reality Check from Prevention Network and that kind of stuff… They really enjoyed going to the movies. We had probably 20 kids who knew Thursday was field trip day. We bought a ton of movie passes and they’d have some time before to hang around the mall and they’d go to the movie and then they’d have a little time after and their parents would come and pick them up. We also went bowling, and we went to ShoppingTown and had a pregnancy prevention discussion around the latest ‘Twilight’ movie. We worked with Reality Check and did a couple of human billboards out here. We just got real creative with the things that we could do with kids.”
In addition, Brauchle involved the kids in the process of interviewing potential staffers. While the new building was being renovated, the CanTeen was also looking for two part-time counselors. Brauchle tasked nine teens with helping her come up with questions and interviewing possible candidates.
“They set about interviewing about 20 people who applied for the part-time positions that we had. They seriously went through 20 interviews,” she said. “They did such an awesome job, and they wound up with the two people who would have worked out the best. They know what they’re looking for, and they’re very good at weeding out the people who are just looking for a job or who think they’re youth-friendly but maybe aren’t so much.”
Brauchle said that small CanTeen staff, as well as the peers kids interact with there daily, help teens develop necessary relationship skills that they might not develop elsewhere.
“The perception is that there is a ‘type’ of child who attends a program like this. Not so much anymore,” Brauchle said. “Even if there was at one point, there are so many kids who are coming home to empty homes that are making choices on their own, no matter what their socioeconomic situation, that are starving for those relationships, they’re starving for someone to acknowledge that they exist and that they are worth the time and effort. They are going to make great decisions and they are going to be better prepared to go off to college or go into work if they know how to build relationships and they’ve made friendships with adults or with other kids or whatever. Time and time again, kids tell us that was the saving grace for them when they left and went off into the wild blue yonder as adults — the skills that they learned here broadened their horizons. These are skills they don’t even get at school, because even the school is making drastic cuts, and more and more, we’re getting looked on to fill that gap. And we’ll willingly take that responsibility.”
Brauchle said that’s the reason she does what she does.
“I get so much more out of them than they could possibly get out of a relationship with me. I just have such warm, fond, loving memories that I’m building every day,” she said. “They teach me something every day. They are good about pointing out my frailties so that I never get too big a head, but they’re loving and they’re kind and they’re a fan for life if they know that you’re there for them. And those kinds of things mean so much more than any monetary reward. Truly, it’s what they give back. It’s those relationships. It’s watching them build those relationships. It’s the most awesome thing on the planet.”
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.