By KAREN SHAPIRO MILLER
TURNERS FALLS – On a typical day, the Brick House Community Resource Center in Turners Falls is a gently choreographed jumble of teenagers. The youngsters – everyone from 11 to 18 is welcome – wander in, sprawl on tattered easy chairs, help themselves to microwaved ramen, sketch cartoons, play video games, dance hip-hop to the music blasting in the front room.
“They’ve got everything you need,” says Gabe Nieves, who is 13, and visits almost every day. “They’ve got a big screen TV, a projector, they’ve got some computers, they’ve got Guitar Hero, they’ve got snacks, they’ve got books and board games and a foosball table, an art room – everyone is making art. The Brick House is fun, and if there’s nothing to do at your house, you can just come here.”
The Brick House was organized in 1989, following the murders of four local women by their partners. Its mission, clearly put by Brick House executive director Dana Lee Mengwasser, is to reduce violence against women and children.
These days, the Brick House serves as a community gathering place, where local folks hold meetings and classes – currently, it’s providing space to a dance class and an acting troupe. A parent and family services coordinator meets with parents and helps them negotiate red tape and transportation issues, so they can use community resources, including food stamps, adult education programs, fuel assistance, and dental care.
And, through its teen center, open every weekday afternoon, Brick House staff members subtly guide local youth toward developing internal strengths that contribute to happier, more fulfilling lives.
“The Brick House is a space where they can be themselves,” says Mengwasser. “Mostly it’s a drop-in center, and then we also have two structured programs.” Through the Momentum arts program, the kids explore art mediums, from watercolor to leather-working to wire sculpture. They also practice skills needed for having jobs.
Through the other program, the Youth Organizing and Leadership Opportunities, the kids learn about sexual health, relationship skills, and conflict resolution. “We’ve done mediation in that group,” says Mengwasser. “We’ve learned about patterns of oppression.”
In developing programs, the Brick House staff relies on research showing that kids with certain resources – “assets” – are better able to thrive than kids who lack them. Some assets, like adult support and a feeling of safety, must be provided to the kids. Others, like having a sense of purpose, and taking responsibility, come from the kids themselves.
The more assets a kid has, the better that child will do. Research conducted by the Search Institute of Minneapolis shows, for example, that nearly 60% of kids with over 30 assets get mostly A’s in school, but only 8% of kids with less than 10 manage the same achievement. Brick House programs, says Mengwasser, “help the youth develop those internal resources.”
“A lot of what we do is in the moment,” says Xinef Afriam. Afriam, a thoughtful 26-year-old, is the Brick House youth programs manager. He and an AmeriCorps member, Alida Proctor, work directly with the teens.
“We try to offer them opportunities based on their interest, encouraging the things that they’re really excited about,” says Afriam. “I’ve discovered, working here, that a lot of the stuff we do doesn’t happen in the programs. It happens interpersonally, throughout the day – maybe learning about what’s going on at home, or being there for them if they’re having a tough time. Most of it happens in passing – while we’re playing a game, or if we’re having a free art time.
“We want to be that place where, if you need somewhere because home is hard, we exist. But hey, while you’re here, start thinking about the future! Think about the kind of person you’d like to grow into.”
Loss of Funding
One of the Brick House’s main sources of funding has been the Youth at Risk program of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Last year, though, the Department dropped that line item, cutting the Brick House’s budget by $25,000. “It was significant,” says Mengwasser.
That grant had funded someone who helped the kids to write resumes and search for jobs. Now that’s gone, and they are no longer able to do street outreach in Turners Falls for kids who are homeless, or unstably housed. The grant had also funded half – $4,500 – their AmeriCorps fee. Now, Brick House staff scrabbles together funding for that.
Losing that funding “was a bit of a blow,” Mengwasser says. And it’s been a wake-up call.
The kids like art, and over the winter, they started holding art exhibits. “We just kind of talked about the idea over time, and Dana’s like: ‘yep, do it,’” says Alida Proctor. A high-energy, enthusiastic 20-year-old, she just picked a date: “I was like, ‘We’re doing it on this day – guys, make some art!’” It went really well: the show raised about $700.
At first, she says, she had to encourage the kids to make art. Then they got into it. “They went out on their own, they ended up finding wood scraps and painting them – large things, that people were paying 50 bucks for!”
The art show provided the sorts of experiences that the Brick House staff wants. “The youth saw the results of their work,” says Afriam, “in a language – money – that they recognized as validating: ‘I got some money for this artwork, and so someone else sees the value of what I’m doing.’”
When young people are recognized for taking initiative and contributing to their own community – whether it’s holding an art show, or cleaning up a spilled drink – then something, says Mengwasser, shifts inside of them: “They can see themselves as people who are capable, as people who are ‘excellent rock stars,’ who can do so much.”
New Funding Goals
After the Youth at Risk program was defunded, the Brick House received emergency support from the Community Foundation of Western Mass. With that, “we were able to squeak by” according to Mengwasser.
But they began making changes. Before, the Brick House’s volunteer board had handled many of the Center’s managerial tasks. Last year, they created the position of executive director.
“We wanted someone who [had enough time to] to focus on diversifying funding…We don’t want to be in a position where if one thing gets lost, it’s the end of the world for us,” says Mengwasser. They wanted to develop flexibility – “enough diversity in our funding sources that we can lose one thing and make some small shifts without losing a big piece of our programming.”
They’ve applied for more grants. And they’re trying to raise funds through other means as well. “We’re trying to triple the support we receive through our Valley Gives Campaign this year; we’re hoping to raise between five and six thousand dollars,” says Mengwasser. “And the Brick House 5K – that’s an annual race that we’ve done for the past two years. I think we can double our participation there.” The 3.1 mile race will be held Saturday, June 16 on the bike path in Turners Falls.
Brick House programming is still suffering from that funding loss. “That really is a big motivator for us,” says Mengwasser. “We’re doing such amazing work. We know there are people who want to support it.”
Tolerance – and Treats
On a lazy April afternoon, Alida and Xinef are hanging out with Lorie Wood, 15, and Journey Smalls, 16, at a long table in the social room. Xinef, who the kids call “Xi” – pronounced like “Z” – is working at his laptop. Alida’s thumbing through a sheaf of papers. The girls are drawing.
“I come to the Brick House to hang out with my friends – mostly Journey – and to make art, like paintings,” says Lorie. Right now, she’s sketching a cartoon. Her work was in the last art show. “I made $130,” she says, with satisfaction. Is she going to be an artist? “I’m going to try!” Alida, across the table, smiles.
“I like to draw too,” chimes in Journey.
Both the girls come to the Brick House almost every day.
What have they learned here?
Lorie giggles. “Patience. How to tolerate things. Like people.”
How did she learn that?
She giggles again. “Through experience.”
“Yeah,” says Journey. Now she’s laughing, too.
“Some of the people here are kind of rude and annoying. But as members of the Brick House community, you kind of got to get used to it, and just be a community,” explains Lorie. She looks thoughtful. “Xi is pretty helpful, with patience and stuff. He’s very patient. He’s very good with all these kids, too. And Alida’s pretty cool – she taught me a lot about negotiation.”
Now she and Journey start to laugh again.
“Bargaining skills!” chortles Lorie.
Alida and Xinef start to laugh, too.
“I’m in the negative for Brick Bucks, because I bought a speaker,” explains Lorie. “And I have been for about a week.” She casts a mischievous glance toward Alida. “But I keep negotiating Brick Bucks from other people. And candy from Alida.” She giggles again. “I have candy right now.” She grins, and waves a crinkly morsel overhead.
To learn more about the Brick House, or to sign up for the 5K race, visit them on the web at brickhousecommunity.org. Or, stop by during the center’s Valley Gives Day party on Tuesday, May 1 from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. for tours of the building, refreshments, crafts, and a children’s dance performance at 5:30.
The teen center is open from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, at 24 Third Street.