Westbrook, Maine (October 1, 2022) Donna Dwyer, President and CEO, unlocks the big red door of My Place Teen Center and welcomes us with open arms. The building, a renovated old church, is a year-round, free, after-school program that enrolls about 400 kids per year. The magnificent stained-glass windows have been conserved, and both floors have been completely restored.
Downstairs, Donna takes us on a tour: a hang-out space with comfy chairs, bean bags, and a foosball table; a private space for counseling; a laundry room with a shower and toiletries; and an art room where they offer daily creative projects led by volunteers, such as making dream catchers, friendship bracelets, lava lamp or candles. “We want this 10,000 sq ft space to feel like a cozy home for the kids,” says Donna. We make our way to the kitchen and meet the new chef, Mac Waybright, Youth Culinary Program Instructor, who is leading the Restaurant Job Training Program (RJTP) that gives the kids a unique opportunity to train as cooks, servers, or dishwashers in a restaurant-like environment.
“All the food is made from scratch by our volunteers. With donations from local businesses as well as individuals, we buy only fresh produce and protein items to feed kids nightly. We currently serve about 35 kids every night, many of whom would have nothing to eat if they didn’t eat here.”, Donna tells us.
Upstairs, we enter the stunning main area, featuring the original tin ceiling that has been repainted. The area includes tables and chairs, pool and ping pong tables, and another living room space with couches. Donna tells us about how the kids can earn points by helping around the building (vacuuming, cleaning after dinner), and can use those points at the mini store to buy snacks, small items, or even Christmas gifts for their families at the end of the year. What a great way to learn financial literacy skills, leadership, and responsibility! A variety of enrichment programs is offered, including academics (tutoring and homework assistance), job skills (job applications support and interview role playing) and character building (mentoring and prevention workshops).
When COVID hit, Donna and her team had to act fast. They knew that after 24 hours, many of the kids would start to go hungry. “We had a kitchen, volunteers and a van” she said, so we put in place a food delivery system to go to the kids’ homes, as well as an outside food truck and pantry for anyone else in need. They served about 250 meals a day through the hardest nine months of the pandemic!
Donna talks with so much passion and love for these kids that it is hard to not tear up. She is very thankful for the continuous support from Artel and its employees and said that this year’s donation will go directly into the meal program. Another location will open next year in Biddeford on the top floor of the former St. Andre’s Church to serve the Biddeford community.