Long after dark on Fridays, the lights are on at the Avenue A Teen + Community Center in Antrim – literally a beacon to teens as they arrive from throughout the Monadnock Region.
Friday Night Open Hours is a favorite event, but the center is a daily beacon for more than 300 young people, offering a safe place to gather and, well, be teens.
Bernadette, of Hancock, likes creative writing and artwork, and the lawn chair drill team (more on that later).
RJ Woodin, of Antrim, enjoys acting, being kind to others and not worrying about being bullied.
At Avenue A, young people participate in everything from small group “Pizza Talk” discussions to biking, hiking, cooking and basketball. They listen to and play music, learn woodworking or unwind where they feel welcomed, appreciated and not judged.
They also learn about being part of a community – at the center and beyond – and how to build belonging, while knowing they are in a place created for them by a community that supports them.
“Going to Avenue A gives a special needs kid like myself a space to be comfortable and be myself and make new friends and not worry about being picked on,” said RJ, 17, who has autism. “There is no other place better than Avenue A because you can just…be…you and not have to literally look around and panic.”
Bernadette, also 17, has been attending Avenue A for six years.
“It feels so friendly and warm,” she said. “It feels like a second home.”
That is deliberate.
Avenue A is a program of The Grapevine Family and Community Resource Center, which is located right across the street. The model of a connected and robust teen center provides seamless links between programs that support young children, teens, parents, caregivers and grandparents. So Avenue A does not stand alone. Many of these teens and their families also benefit from valuable resources through the Grapevine.
“We are working with families who have been supported by the Grapevine from birth,” said Jacqueline Roland, Grapevine’s director of teen programs and Avenue A’s coordinator. “We have kids who attended preschool at the Grapevine with their parents and now they are in our programs at Avenue A.”
Avenue A was founded as part of the Family Resource Center in 2007, when community members came together to create a place for teens to have fun, be safe and establish positive relationships. Avenue A is thriving with help from two dozen community partners and more than 70 adult volunteers. (From the iconic 1990s musical Rent, Avenue A is a place of joy and acceptance where people gather.)
The Grapevine and Avenue A supported the community through a trying period in 2019, including the suicide of a 13-year-old. The organization brought in expert support and resources and provided opportunities for young people to express and understand their emotions.
Roland and Melissa Gallagher, Grapevine’s executive director, got training in suicide prevention and then offered training for the community. Gallagher said the response was a pivotal role for the Grapevine and Avenue A.
As the only teen center in the Monadnock Region, Avenue A attracts youth, ages 11-19, from more than a dozen communities. It’s within walking distance or on the bus route from some schools. Staff and volunteers take great care to honor the individuality of each young person who comes through the door, and to build a community that values and celebrates diversity.
“We really just want to have the chance to hear their stories, talk to them, hear about their day, what they are excited about, what’s going well for them or not, and walk alongside them with that,” said Roland. “That’s the biggest part of the experience, just feeling seen when you come in the door from our staff and volunteers and the other teens.”
Avenue A is taking some programs to other communities, such as an entertaining “Cupcake Wars” program in Peterborough.
Teens give back by helping with projects such as community meals, raking leaves or performing plays.
Some are members of the lawn chair drill team. Bernadette describes it as “basically cheerleading/dancing?” while twirling and tossing lawn chairs. With the disco tune “I Will Survive” as a soundtrack in 2022, they performed at parades, town festivals and nursing homes – and won several awards.
Disco lawn chair dancing is a far cry from Bernadette’s shy first days at Avenue A.
“Then I started doing art class once a month and I just kind of broke out of my shell,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Avenue A, I wouldn’t have met my best friend and wouldn’t have gotten to know my community a lot better, not just teens, but the adult volunteers in the area.”
In several years at Avenue A, RJ has learned a lot. He also teaches a lot by making newcomers welcome.
“I was raised by my parents to always be kind to someone,” he said. “I always learned that if you are nice to somebody, it gives you something in return.”
Suicide is not the answer. If you or someone you care about is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call and speak to trained and caring clinical staff. For NH Rapid Response, call or text 833-710-6477 or chat nh988.com.