Outside the South End Teen Center at 97 Water St. in Waterville on Thursday are, front from left, Ethan Upton, 14, Dias Greene, 16, and Nate Weir, 16, showing off one of three 10-foot banners that were conceived and designed by people at the center. The banners all carry safety messages. Pictured in back are Isaiah Vear, 13, left, and Jordan Carpenter, 17. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — Youths who attend the South End Teen Center make a difference when they tackle a community service project.

They recently designed and erected banners in three places in the city’s South End, for instance, to urge motorists to slow down.

They can’t be missed, the colorful, 10-foot tall banners — one next to the Teen Center at 5 Libby Court, another at the intersection of Water and Grove streets, and one on King Street.

The bright yellow banner at Grove and Water streets says “Parents, Kids & Pets Live here. Please Slow Down,” and features silhouettes of kids playing ball, an adult with a child and a cat. The purple banner at the Teen Center bears the directive, “Slow Down, Dawg. Thank you!”

Jordan Carpenter, 17, said the banners help make the community safer for kids as well as adults and responsible motorists traveling through the South End. He recalled a bus stopped last week on Water Street by the teen center and had its lights flashing as kids were getting off, when a car illegally whizzed past the bus.

“Everyone at the local teen center lives in the area,” Carpenter said. “We’re trying to make it a little safer, not just for the people who live in the area, but for everyone in general.”

Fifteen to 20 youths from sixth through the 11th grade attend the teen center every day. Besides receiving academic support through mentoring and tutoring from Colby and Thomas college students and volunteers, the youths play basketball, learn how to cook the food they grow in raised bed gardens, take nutritional classes, learn how to play instruments, and canoe, hike and go to the beach in warmer weather.

“They get a lot of emotional and social support from staff and volunteers,” said Andrea Pasco, development director for Kennebec Valley Community Action Group, which owns and operates the center.

Pasco and Teen Center Coordinator Ryan Kneeland interacted with the youths Thursday afternoon in the three-story teen center, where there were activities in every room. Pasco, Kneeland and the youths talked about the many community service projects the kids are involved in.

They learn about assembling and repairing donated bikes and volunteer at the annual South End Bike Swap, help with the annual neighborhood cleanup and volunteer at the annual National Night Out festivities in the South End, among other activities.

Evan Benway, 14, recalled volunteering at Quarry Road Recreation Area, helping to set wood markers in the ground for an athletic event.

“It was exhausting and it was perilous,” said Benway, who loves drama and doing impressions of people.

Benway, who aspires to be a 3D animator and voice actor one day, said he gets “points” from the Teen Center for his volunteer work, and he can use the points toward getting snacks or gift cards.

Theaster Gates, Colby College’s first Lunder Institute of American Art resident artist, spoke to officials at the South End Teen Center during a tour of the South End in Waterville on Sept. 20, 2017. Gates specializes in revitalizing neighborhoods through art and urban planning. Morning Sentinel file photo

The banner project was possible through a $500 grant from Theaster Gates, a Chicago-based artist who spoke to teen center members, residents and others outside the center in September 2017 about how to devise creative ways to help solve community problems and tackle challenges. Many residents said the narrow South End streets are dangerous because people drive too fast there, and residents must walk in the street in winter because the sidewalks are not plowed.

Gates urged residents to take matters into their own hands and do something to help make the streets safer.

A social practice installation artist who helps revitalize neighborhoods by combining art and urban planning, Gates was the first artist-in-residence at Colby College’s Lunder Institute for American Art. The institute was established through a major gift to Colby by Peter and Paula Lunder.

South End Teen Center people conceived of and designed three 10-foot banners that carry safety messages. One of the banners is shown Thursday near the teen center along King Street in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

Pasco, Kneeland and the youths said Thursday that they worry about elderly people who walk in the streets with canes and walkers, sometimes hauling groceries and laundry, and they hope the banners asking motorists to slow down help. Pasco, who saw the car pass the bus last week going about 40 mph in a 25 mph zone on Water Street, said it’s just a matter of time before someone gets injured.

“The bus was going south and if it had been going in the other direction and kids were crossing the street, they would have been hit,” she said. Kneeland concurred.

“At some point, somebody’s going to get flattened,” he said. “It could be a kid, it could be an elderly person.”

With help from Serena Sanborn, education and outreach coordinator for Waterville Creates!, the youths designed the banners, chose the colors and the words and put their project into action.

Carpenter has attended the teen center six years and serves as a role model to younger members, according to Kneeland. Carpenter said the center is like a second home and he has made a lot of friends there.

“I’m very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had,” he said.

Carpenter spends about three hours a day, four days a week at the center.

“Everyone here’s just like a family,” he said. “Most people are really close to each other. Everyone fits in within a couple of days after they come.”

South End Teen Center Coordinator Ryan Kneeland, right, and Andrea Pasco, one of the early advocates for the center, Thursday at the 97 Water St. center in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

Pasco, who was one of the organizers of the center in 2004, said it provides support that leads to real success for the youths, many of whom have had adverse childhood experiences, but later on in life report back that they are doing well in life and work.

The teen center, which operates on about $120,000 a year, is considered a satellite center of the Boys & Girls Club at the Alfond Youth Center, which helps to provide various amounts of funding each year, according to Pasco. Teen Center members get free memberships at the Alfond Center, which provides hot meals to the youths a couple of times a week.

Largely, the teen center is funded through a Community Services Block Grant KVCAP receives from the federal government. Money also comes from private donations, businesses, small foundation grants and United Way of Mid-Maine, according to Pasco. Every year, she said, officials work to piece together funding for the center to remain open and adequately staffed.

The center works with schools to track a lot of the students’ grades and school attendance, and the youths may get points for grades, she said.

Besides Kneeland, the center employs a full-time youth outreach worker who provides one-on-one help for students who are struggling academically and helps guide them in exploring post-secondary education opportunities. Two other part-time workers also are employed.

Scholarship funds are available for youths to receive driver education. One student this year will get a scholarship to go on the Heritage Tour to Washington, D.C.

Center members volunteer with the annual Battle of The Badges, a basketball game between Waterville police and firefighters that raises money for the teen center. The youths help with a bake sale, count change, sell tickets and interface with the public, Pasco said.

Kneeland noted that the youths are happy, engaged and smiling when they come to the center.

“These are delightful kids,” he said.

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