Friday, November 11, 2016

Alex Gibbons, Student Leader of the Arch Street Teen Center

The following blog post by Olivia Luntz, Greenwich Oral History Project volunteer and senior at Greenwich High School is derived from an interview conducted by OHP interviewer Renée Lux last spring. The interview is one of four commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Arch Street Teen Center and is with narrator Alex Gibbons, president of the Arch Street Teen Center board from 2014 until his graduation in June of this year   

Interior of the Greenwich Arch Street Teen Center
Alex Gibbons got his start at the Arch Street Teen Center by attending weekend dances when he was in middle school. He appreciated that the dances enabled him to meet people from outside his private school community. In his freshman year of high school, Gibbons sat in on his first teen board meeting and “really connected with just the message of the place and what it was doing for our town.” After serving on the board for two years, he became president in his junior year. Gibbons explains that the board is made up of twenty-five to thirty high school students, with about fifteen from Greenwich High School and another fifteen representing private schools. During weekly meetings they plan events and discuss how to advertise these events to fellow teens. As president, Gibbons ran most of the meetings and assisted the executive director, Kyle Silver, in keeping the center running. But Gibbons’ involvement with Arch Street didn’t end there. As a musician he jammed at the center with other kids and even opened for a featured band. However, Gibbons believes he has benefitted most from his involvement as a public servant. He values working with different people and nonprofits, scheduling events, and he recognizes that working with different organizations is not something most teens have an opportunity to do.

While Gibbons was working for Arch Street, the center expanded its programming to appeal to a wider audience. In addition to the flagship dances, the center now offers a variety of activities and events. Over the summer Arch Street offers paddle boarding, and during the school year yoga classes are available. In addition, the center recently opened its own café, the Greenwich Grind. Although Gibbons was not sure about the changes at first, so far, he admits, the feedback has been positive. “I’ve been used to having only dances this whole time, and I didn’t know …on your average Wednesday after school, are teens going to be coming down to hang out at Arch Street?” But, as it turns out, they do come. There they would be: “a bunch of middle schoolers, hanging out and eating food and playing ping pong and kind of enjoying themselves.” Overall, Gibbons is pleased with the success of these new programs, believing they will help Arch Street appeal to those teens less interested in the dances and more interested in other activities, therefore helping to broaden the center’s base of teens.
Alex Gibbons

However, no matter the success of Arch Street’s other programs, Gibbons still asserts that the most popular events are the dances, each selling an average of four hundred and fifty tickets. Gibbons believes it is the dances that best help Arch Street accomplish its mission of providing a drug-and alcohol-free environment for teens. Being able to attend fun events or just hang out in a substance-free zone is especially beneficial for middle school students, as it helps delay exposure to drugs and alcohol. Gibbons notes that Arch Street has very strict security to ensure that no substances are brought into the center and there are always trained EMTs on site during dances in case any teens arrive showing symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

There are still further goals to reach, according to Gibbons. Gibbons notes that the high school dances are most popular among teens attending private school in Greenwich and that in the future he would like to see a more diverse crowd in attendance. “Just because your dance is selling out, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily fulfilling the mission of the Teen Center.” He adds that a lot of the teen board’s programming focuses on trying to reach people at Greenwich High School and that he enjoys it when he sees students from public and private school interact. Gibbons notes that the middle school dances and the Greenwich Grind are popular with public school kids, and he is hopeful that the high school dances, too, will soon become popular with all of the teens in the Greenwich community.

In addition to reaching out to teens, Arch Street also strives to educate parents and the community. For example, Arch Street has recently introduced a speaker series, which is aimed at parents and teens. These talks focus on topics such as helping teens with the college process, managing stress levels, and talking to teens about drugs. The Winter Wonderland event last December was another successful community program, one of which Gibbons is particularly proud since it was entirely teen planned. In order to attract families of elementary school kids, the planners provided for activities such as a bouncy castle, an arts-and-crafts table, and a fire truck for kids to explore. There were also photo-ops with Santa and the Grinch and lots of food. Gibbons hopes that this event will become a tradition at Arch Street, bringing the community together for years to come.

Overall, Gibbons believes that Arch Street is not only valuable to teens as a place that is drug-and alcohol-free but also as a place where everyone is equal. “It kind of levels the playing field,” he says, giving teens a chance to interact with students from other schools. He is quick to stress that he, too, has benefitted from this opportunity. Gibbons adds that there aren’t many events outside of Arch Street that would bring together teens from the different high schools in Greenwich, and this is exactly what makes Arch Street special. Gibbons ends his interview by noting that Arch Street is lucky to have such generous donors that have kept the Center going for twenty-five years, and he hopes Greenwich will see Arch Street continue for at least another twenty-five years.

And we in Greenwich are indeed lucky to have young future leaders like Alex Gibbons and Olivia Luntz among us.

(OHP interview: Alex Gibbons, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 7, 2014.)

Greenwich Oral History Project interviews are available in the reference area on first floor of the Greenwich Library or through the project office on the lower level.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Arch Street Teen Center, 25 Years Old and Going Strong!

The Arch Street Teen Center, located at 100 Arch Street in Greenwich, is said to be the longest-running, privately funded center for teens in the United States. In order to record the history and accomplishments of this organization, Greenwich Oral History Project interviewer, Renee Lux, conducted interviews with some of the center’s key members and supporters, all with important stories to share, some going back to the organization’s founding. It is fitting to focus on these interviews since the teen center will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary,  November, 2016.

It is important to recognize that there are many community members who have been instrumental in the center’s success, who have given time and great effort. We focus here on four who represent what it takes to make a teen center a success.

Judith A. Donahue, one of the four narrators interviewed, was there from the beginning. She told our OHP interviewer that a friend had recruited her in 1985 to give six months of her time to a feasibility study for a teen center in town. Six years later, after much involvement, the feasibility of a drug-free, alcohol-free center where teens could successfully gather for fun and camaraderie became a reality. (OHP interview: Judith A. Donahue, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 7, 2014.)

Equally important and instrumental in seeing the teen center flourish was State Senator, L. Scott Frantz, whose interest in the center began early on, after the death of his younger brother, Chris, an early advocate of a safe place for teens to gather. After his death in an aviation accident at age twenty-two, Senator Frantz’s mother, Ann Haebler Frantz, took up the cause, but when she too died, in1988, the Senator was the sole family member left to see his brother’s dream become a reality. (OHP interview: Senator L. Scott Frantz, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 1, 2014.)
State Senator, L. Scott Frantz

While Ms. Donahue and State Senator Frantz are key figures representing the commitment and work it took to make the Arch Street Teen Center the vibrant success it is today, one of the narrators interviewed is on the frontlines daily, Executive Director, Kyle Silver, who has been at the organization’s helm since 1997, six years after the official opening, when Mr. Silver was still a student at the University of North Carolina.

A big part of Mr. Silver’s job is providing programs and events inspiring enough to tear teens away from social media and to bring them into the Arch Street location and into the community for service projects, as with Neighbor-to-Neighbor, for which the center won a student organization of the year award. Then there are the weekend evening events drawing hundreds of students and the conference events bringing in celebrities and well-known public figures to speak on important topics from careers to the environment.

Less in the public eye but equally important are the routine day-to-day operational duties, keeping the budget in line, growing attendance while securing safety and maintaining a drug and alcohol free environment at events. Additionally, there is the challenge of communications, so important to maintaining support for the center’s existence.  

Taken together, the challenges are enormous, and yet the Greenwich Center has become a template around the country for those communities who would like a teen center of their own lasting longer than a year or two. When Ms. Lux asked Mr. Silver about Arch Street’s success, his answer was immediate:

“I can tell you the definite answer to that; it’s because we give so much ownership to the teens when it comes to planning the events.”
Executive Director, Kyle Silver

Ownership must be initiated by the teens themselves, Mr. Silver stresses. That ownership ensures success of the programs, of community support, of the facility itself. The teens are the ones who ensure the center’s mission, “to provide teens with a safe environment in which to connect and socialize with their peers.” It’s that simple, and, according to Mr. Silver, “…it’s stood the test of time” because, he says, when you “grow from a simple base, you can have something extraordinary.”

At the Arch Street Teen Center the structure of the teen board provides that simple base. The students who underpin the ownership required for success are those on the leadership council: the president, the co-president, the vice-president, and the teen board. Working together the teen leadership committees and the adult committees provide a foundation strong enough to weather challenges that can appear daunting to the casual observer.

Simply reading Mr. Silver’s interview gives an indication of how he goes about his job on any given day: steadfastly maintaining a policy of zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol; staying informed, whether on the premises or away, with Blackberry always handy; checking emails constantly; keeping his sites on what’s going on socially among his “customer base”; being aware of the unique challenges a town like Greenwich presents, making sure kids of varying economic backgrounds and experiences can come together in a place that welcomes them all as equals.

With all this in mind, it is easy to understand that Executive Director Kyle Silver is proud of his successes, remembering when those events that now produce four hundred attendees once saw only thirty or forty.

Mr. Silver concludes with this observation: “Teenagers are a very tough demographic because they’re challenging on a lot of levels….So we have our challenges, without a doubt, but at the same time the community support has been outstanding.” Things are, it seems to Mr. Silver, “to be as good as it could be.” (OHP Interview, Kyle Silver, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 23, 2014.)

Our fourth interview, with Alex Gibbons, president of the teen board for two terms until his graduation in June, 2016, will be the subject of a separate post by our own student Oral History Project volunteer, Olivia Luntz. It’s next up.