MIDDLEBURY — Tranquility is perhaps the last word that one would think to associate with a teen center. However, before the kids arrive at 3 p.m., tranquility is exactly what one might experience at Addison Central Teens. Located at the Recreation Park near Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury, the center has been running since 2008.
A pool table sits prominently inside the center, quiet and neatly organized with the cues standing in place on their rack. Cicilia Robinson, the center’s AmeriCorps member, prepares for the afternoon snack. She walks around the kitchen deliberately, as if competing in the final seconds of a televised cooking competition. Devon Karpak laughs with Cicilia about their shortage of paper towels, of which they had only just received a new delivery.
Karpak has served in his current capacity twice, once in 2017 and again with the recent departure of the center’s executive director. “My passion is serving youth, helping them with that transitional period in their lives, finding their passions, and making sure they make decisions that are going to benefit them in the long run while also making mistakes in a safe environment,” he said.
Karpak emphasized the turbulence of adolescence. “You’re gonna screw up,” he said. Through these failures, however, Karpak sees the potential for growth. To him, the teen center is a place where teens can make mistakes in a safe and nurturing environment.
“You don’t feel like the adults or the system is coming down on you,” Karpak said.
Robinson has been with the center since September of 2018 and also emphasized the need for supportive supervision that is not as harsh as at schools.
“It is a place where they can explore things like non-sexual intimacy, and we understand that is important for growing as a human being,” Robinson said.
The center serves a diverse community of teens in grades 7 through 12. Karpak said that one of the center’s greatest resources is its diversity. The teen center has grown dramatically recently, experiencing a threefold increase in participation over 16 months. Participants are from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and the center serves multiple LGBTQIA students.
“We are showing kids that it is cool to be themselves and that you can be friends with people who are not like you,” Karpak said.
Karpak attributed the growth of the center to the accepting space which the center offers.
“People feel comfortable here, we are filling a need in the community; we’re increasing our presence in terms of showing that people are welcome here,” he said.
Robinson is excited by the expansion of the program and its new ability to provide services to more teens who need them. In the past, the teen center has offered activities ranging from boat building to financial literacy.
“They are being really present and they are learning and they want to learn even after being in school all day,” Robinson said.
The center also hosts support groups for mental health and for LGBTQIA students. Karpak emphasized the need for these resources in rural communities like Middlebury and is excited that the center is growing to offer more resources for the teens.
“It is growing and filling into the places that are very needed in this community,” he said. The center relies on volunteers, and students from Middlebury College often participate.
Robinson is the only full-time volunteer, so help from Middlebury students expands the amount of work that can get done in a day. Robinson and Karpak noted, however, that Middlebury students have so much more to offer than simply being helping hands.
“The kids think [Middlebury students] are way cooler than the adults so they can relate to them,” Robinson said.
Karpak concurred, “Each Middlebury College student relates to a different group of kids within the teen center differently and really elevates the overall experience.”
Giulia Park ’19 got involved with volunteering for the center because of her experiences with after-school programs growing up. She found that the ability to connect with these students was one of the most valuable parts of her experience.
“I was able to bond with the teens that regularly came to the teen center, and it was super fun to watch them experiment with their identities and become more comfortable in their own skin as the weeks went by,” she said.
Park remembered building these relationships fondly.
“My co-volunteer Lizzy Vinton and I were in charge of the snack prep, which helped us get on the teens’ good side— there’s nothing like grilled cheese to put a smile on the face of a moody teenager,” she said.
Karpak was emphatic in his desire to continue growing the center’s relationship with the college. In addition to Middlebury student volunteers, a Computer Science professor also ran a course at the center and helped to install desktop computers.
“We want as much interaction with the college as we can,” Karpak said.
Robinson, a Middlebury alumna herself, stressed the importance of remembering to support the community that so strongly supports us.
“The kids need it and they’re worth it, they’re so worth it,” she said.