MANCHESTER, NH – We too often are confronted with the problems in our community, particularly when it comes to crime.
Less often do we hear about tangible solutions, or perhaps more vital, prevention and intervention programs for our young people. But last week I had the opportunity to see progress in motion when I attended an opening celebration for the My Turn Project Connect Drop-in Center.
Located at 340 Granite St. on the city’s West Side, the center is fully operational, with room for studying, relaxing, counseling and closets full of clothing and food, to meet basic needs of those who find their way there. The target is young people between the ages of 13 and 24, but there are resources for anyone who comes through.
Allison Joseph was there to meet and greet members of the community, alumni and supporters on Thursday. She is Executive Director of My Turn, and has been involved with the program in some capacity for the past 14 years, starting with running a drop-out prevention program at Central High School between 2007 and 2011.
The new drop-in center, Project Connect, is the latest offshoot of a program that has always aimed to connect with young people who are at risk of falling through the cracks in the educational and juvenile justice system. The need for a more focused outreach became evident when, statistically, those in the trenches with young people noticed a dramatic increase in students who were in some way involved in shooting incidents, whether they were victims or witnesses to crime; shot at or actually using a weapon to defend themselves in certain situations, says Joseph.
By dramatic increase, she explains that it might be usual to see three or four youth affected by gun violence in a given year, but in the course of the past two years, those numbers more than tripled. And even if students weren’t directly affected by the situational trauma of shooting incidents, they lived in neighborhoods where it was becoming too familiar.
“So we tried to figure out what was missing from our program, and one of the things we identified was that our current programs are based in the schools or are federally funded. They’re outcome-driven, and there are certain metrics we need to hit, and so we realized the need for more unstructured time for these youth to be able to engage with caring adults, where they might not be ready to go back into a classroom environment, or may not be ready for the work environment.”
The need for addressing basic needs, like mental health, food insecurity or just some non-judgemental guidance, led to the development of a drop-in center that could provide those things under one roof, including preparing young people for HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) or career-based programming.
Working in support of the drop-in center are many established organizations, including the Manchester Police Athletic League, the Juvenile Probation and Parole, Manchester Police, HOPE Inc. (for Helping Our Pupils Excel), Chandler’s Angels Initiative, and others.
When the space opened up on Granite Street they went for it, and began designing a program that would nurture those in need while including many of those from the community who have been down some dark roads themselves and are now giving back by leading the way.
Over time Joseph says they expect to build the program to be able to serve about 100 youth.
The building has a small gym, a meditation room and a sound booth where young people can experiment with making music. The center will be open between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesdays, and 8 a.m to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
As word has circulated, they’ve already had inquiries from Parkside Middle School and Central High expressing interest in connecting students with the drop-in center. The need is that great, says Joseph.
“We’ve tended to be in the high schools and post-high school group, but the sooner we can help students with some things that inspire them to stay in school and a reason to continue to stay in school, the better for everybody.
Money to operate the program comes from a patchwork of funding streams including the Office of Workforce Opportunity, and Manchester Police Department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods grant.
Mikey Caterson is tucked in a room with a color-changing light sitting in front of some impressive-looking computer software, working something out on a keyboard. At 19, he is one of the first to take advantage of the drop-in center, having been connected to My Turn since last summer. He has since become a regular, and was given paid internship and a budget and designed the music studio and built out the furniture set up.
“I was getting my GED next door and one of my teachers said I should get in touch with the program,” said Caterson. He says one of his biggest issues with school and work was managing his ADHD. He found himself unable to focus at school, and getting jobs was not a problem, but keeping them was.
“I had a lot of frustration,” says Caterson. “But this gives me something to do and it helps me work better in a job environment, having the support of the people here gives me a more professional viewpoint.”
He came to New Hampshire at 15 from Boston to live with his grandmother. After several years of struggling, he feels like he’s found his place, one that helps him get his life back on track while supporting his dream of creating and playing music professionally.
Mentors include people like Carl Connor, Travis Turcotte and Joseph Lascaze, members of the My Turn outreach team, who all have a few things in common. Not only do they believe in the power of transformation that comes when caring adults step in to help a young person in need, but they all have served time for mistakes made in their younger days, and are dedicated to not only giving back but making a difference.
“I would walk past this building many times when I was a kid growing up, and now I think if only this place had existed then, I wonder if my life would have been different,” says Lascaze. “This program we have here has the potential and ability to change people’s lives, and I’m glad we get to start on the West Side.”
The local was targeted by My Turn.
“We intentionally picked the West Side when we were looking for new space because there generally aren’t enough services over here and a lot of kids who can use them, and for some reason it seems kids from the East Side have no trouble getting over here, but kids from the West Side can’t find their way across the river,” Joseph said. “I don’t know why – it’s the same distance. So we were happy to find this space,” which includes all three units on the ground floor of the building.
Connor has similar memories.
“I remember one time I was cutting through here – I was actualy cutting class – and there were a bunch of businessmen outside and one guy was like, do the kids get out early here? And another guy was like, no, they’re just city kids,” Connor recalls. “Right over there is a park, and that’s where me and my friends would gather and there’d be nothing to do, so we got in trouble. If this place had been here then, we could have just walked over and found something better to do.”
The outreach team works with Bryan Boilard, project case manager, to connect with young people ready for change wherever they are, whether it’s sporting events, basketball courts or those who call for an Uber ride.
“I do that part-time, so if the opportunity arises, I tell them about this program and how it makes a difference,” Connor said.
Connecting the youth in the program to opportunities outside the center is also a goal. Josephs said she plans to hold networking events during which adults involved can leverage their own personal and professional networks to connect them with young people looking for work or internships.
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There is great support from groups that were born of tragedy, like Chandler’s Angels Initiative, which provided a grant to help get the center up and running.
“We’re proud to partner with My Turn,” says Amy Innarelli-Houle, whose son Chandler was just 22 when he died of a gunshot wound during a February 2020 shooting on Union Street. She says she started the non-profit organization as her way of turning a personal tragedy into something more.
“If I can spare another mother of going through the heartbreak we did, then it’s worth it. And these kinds of things like the My Turn program are what drive me because I know they will make an impact on the lives of others, like my son,” Innarelli-Houle says.
And most importantly, perhaps, is her grandson, who was just 3 months old when his father was killed.
“I do this so that he will grow up knowing who his father was, and how his father was a mentor to others before he died. And so that one day, he can do something to help others,” Innarelli-Houle says.
During the open house 15 brand new laptops were delivered, courtesy of Comcast, which has also partnered with My Turn by providing three years of free wifi to the building.
Alderman Pat Long was there, and noted that Comcast has been a great partner to the city, also donating laptops recently to the 1269 Cafe, which is an outreach for the homeless.
“We need more of this. It’s a great program, and even when it goes to capacity, they don’t turn anyone down,” Long says.
“What I like about it addresses the child’s life but also shows them that to succeed in life you have to go get it. I wish I had that in my life when I was a kid. Being a ward of the state, believe me, I could have used a place like this. Some of these kids, their parents give up on them because it’s too much. But now they have mentors through the program and partners, like Matt Courchesne, whose HOPE program is a great fit here,” says Long. A place to find adults who believe in you, who love you, and are genuinely here to help, he said.
Courchesne, who was also in attendance – and a hero of the night because he delivered the chicken tenders, which he picked up from his day job at the Puritan Backroom, couldn’t be more excited about the drop-in center.
“The reason I bring my kids from the HOPE program here is because of the relationships, resources and opportunities they have here. Some of our kids have found success because of My Turn, which is key in helping kids find jobs, or get into schools, or into trades. It’s wonderful,” Courchesne said.