EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of occasional profiles on Catholic Charities agencies and ministries in the Southern Tier.
WATKINS GLEN — Based on her nearly 10-year involvement with Schuyler Catholic Charities youth programs, Sarah Franzese obviously knows a good thing when she’s got it.
Franzese, 18, has enjoyed a steady stream of fun and friendship since attending her first event as a fifth-grader. Now a freshman at Corning Community College, she retains her Catholic Charities link by working as a part-time youth counselor at Schuyler Teen Center.
“I just like the atmosphere here. It’s a friendly atmosphere; you can play games and talk to each other. Everybody gets along here,” Franzese said on a recent Thursday evening at the facility.
The teen center opened in January 2006 in a converted storefront at 208 N. Franklin St., on the main drag of Watkins Glen. It serves youths ages 12 to 18 and is open weekday afternoons after school, some weekday evenings and Saturdays, offering such activities as movie and game nights, arts and crafts, and sewing — all within a comfortable, brightly-decorated atmosphere including dining tables, a refreshment bar, couch and big-screen television.
“It’s a busy place,” remarked Andrea Mattoon, Schuyler Catholic Charities’ director of education and youth development.
As an added attraction, the Blue Note Cafe opened within the center in August 2006. It serves up such refreshments as smoothies, milk shakes, ice cream, hot dogs, pretzels, popcorn and nachos, and also includes a hot-dog cart that goes out on Franklin Street during the busy summer tourist and auto-racing season. The cafe is staffed by teens, who also develop its business plan. Another food-related venture is Thursday-evening dinner, for which teens cook, serve and eat tasty cuisine ranging from chicken cordon bleu to gnocchi to goulash — “usually with a dessert and salad and veggies. It’s a full meal,” Mattoon said.
In addition to the Thursday meals, small snacks are available daily at the center. All items, except for those sold through the Blue Note Cafe, are offered free of charge.
Yet the most vital aspects of Schuyler Teen Center do not involve food and drink, but life skills. For instance, a paid staff of teen peer leaders such as Franzese get to hone their leadership abilities.
“I’ve personally seen the youths develop in their character and confidence, seen them turn into leaders before my eyes,” said Mary Ann Combs, who serves as culinary coordinator and abstinence educator.
“It’s so much fun. I actually look forward to coming to work,” remarked another peer leader, Sarah Rockwell. “I get comments like, ‘you get paid to do this?’ And I love it!”
She noted that the center offers a safe atmosphere for dialogue — either in group settings or one-on-one — related to life issues affecting teens such as gossip and relationships.
“Sometimes we have pretty deep discussions,” said Sarah, 16, a junior at Watkins Glen High School.
Combs observed that the teen center emphasizes group interaction, which means frowning on cliques and such distractions as iPods and cell phones.
“If you look around this is a place we’re involved, not just sitting. I call it a community. They have a lot of fun. They talk, they laugh,” Combs said, adding that “these are our regulars. I believe there’s even more of a need.”
Schuyler Teen Center is funded largely by a grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but Mattoon said funding is due to run out next Oct. 1 and her goal is to “gain more community support so it’s not relying so much on grants every year.”
The teen center is an outgrowth of the Watkins Glen Youth Center, an after-school drop-in program that has been overseen by Catholic Charities since its inception in the late 1990s. That center originated at St. Mary of the Lake Church for grades 5 through 12, but Mattoon explained that the need for a teen facility arose after Catholic Charities lost state funding for grades 9 through 12. Watkins Glen Youth Center now operates out of Watkins Glen Middle School for grades 5 through 8, with Catholic Charities’ Danielle Tilden serving as director.
A related venture is an after-school initiative at Watkins Glen High School, where teens congregate in a supervised setting with free snacks available. All these efforts are part of Catholic Charities’ community-based education program that seeks to keep youths safe and occupied while emphasizing abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol.
“I kind of look at it as a time when they’re all together, not alone,” Combs said.