Since then, she’s returned regularly to the center’s space in the Listen Community Services building on Lyman Point to “hang out with friends and relax.” She’s participated in art projects such as drawing or candle making.
On Thursday afternoon, as a group of her peers jammed on instruments in one corner and another young person rode a scooter in loops around the room, Merrihew snacked on cookie dough from the dorm-like kitchen and leaned over a couch as she chatted with one of the center’s three staff members, Lucas DeVries.
For the past 14 years, The Junction has offered snacks, support and a free, supervised place in White River Junction for teens and young adults, ages 15 to 20, to drop in on weekdays between 1 and 7 p.m. Soon, Merrihew will need to find another welcoming place, or do without.
“I don’t know where I’m going to hang out,” she said.
Listen, which operates the center, announced earlier this month that it will close The Junction and hand off some of the programs to the Wilder-based Second Growth, which provides prevention programs, counseling and support for teens, young adults and families.
Kyle Fisher, Listen’s executive director, said the center didn’t square with Listen’s mission. By closing the youth center, Listen can reallocate the $150,000 it costs to run The Junction to the Lebanon-based nonprofit’s other programs such as food, fuel and rental assistance, for which demand has been climbing at a steady rate of late, Fisher said.
In addition, Fisher said young people’s needs have evolved over time, so they could benefit from the substance use counseling and mental health support that Second Growth can offer.
“We wanted to make sure youth were getting the level of care that they really should if they were coming to us,” Fisher said.
Listen will give Second Growth $5,000 in seed funding to smooth the transition, said Heidi Postupack, Second Growth’s executive director.
Second Growth does not plan to operate the drop-in center because it doesn’t have the staff or money to do so, she said. The Junction program is “pretty formidable” and “not easily replicated,” she said.
Instead, Second Growth will build on its existing programs to develop some after-school activities for young people in the area.
The programs also will include an underlying curriculum focused on prevention, bullying, leadership skills, self-care and wellness. Second Growth already offers some free programs for young people, including an evening course once a month during the school year called “Coaching for Captains,” which aims to help student-athletes balance their studies and sports. The organization also offers a spring break camp in April and a two-week camp in the summer. The spring camp focuses on creative pursuits, while the summer program brings in Dartmouth College athletes to show the high school students what it’s like to be a college athlete.
New programs might include opportunities to play Magic: The Gathering and chess, and movie nights, Postupack said. They might hold some at their Wilder office, but also seek out larger space elsewhere in the Upper Valley.
The fate of The Junction’s current space is unclear.
“It’ll be fun to find another use for it,” Fisher said.
Though participation has been down at The Junction in recent years, Fisher said the decision to close it wasn’t easy, because The Junction has helped so many young people over the years, and the staff and volunteers have been so committed to the work.
While the teen center was often a busy place, exactly how many young people it served isn’t clear. A drop-in center is by its nature hard to quantify. Fisher said the center has fewer than 10 visitors a day, with more on days when there are special programs scheduled and less on others. Sometimes there aren’t any young people in the space, he said.
Katie O’Day, The Junction’s youth services director, said participation has fluctuated over the approximately nine years she’s been involved with the center. In part, she said, numbers have been down recently because of the region’s overall aging population and declining enrollment at Hartford High School. In The Junction’s 14 years, enrollment at Hartford High dropped from nearly 800 students to fewer than 500.
The Junction, the only teen drop-in center in the core of the Upper Valley, was founded in 2006 with the aim of helping to address a problem of youth homelessness. Originally located in a former dance studio on North Main Street, where Open Door Studios is now, it moved to its current location in 2013.
Nancy Bloomfield, The Junction’s first coordinator, said that in the early days the group built community by fixing up the space. “A lot of people contributed to get the program off the ground,” said Bloomfield, who came to the role after working at Cover Home Repair.
Once that early space was up and running, staff aimed to make all feel welcome, said Bloomfield, who is now the executive director of The Family Place in Norwich. They had pool tables, couches and a library. They also had an evening meal when everyone sat down together. Some helped prepare the meal, others set the table, and others cleaned up.
The staff’s primary goal was to build rapport with the young people, which would allow them to provide resources and support when needed, Bloomfield said. While closing up at the end of the day, Bloomfield said she and other staff would take note of which participant had made eye contact with them for the first time; an achievement that would sometimes take months.
“Our approach was to try to meet people where they were at,” Bloomfield said. And to “offer support at the right time in a way people were comfortable.”
Angie Raymond Leduc, who coordinated The Junction with Bloomfield before leading it herself until 2013, said she remembers that one young person came to the center for a year before finally sitting down at the table with staff and other attendees. The episode has stuck with her through the years as a moment when she felt, “finally, we’re making progress.”
To an outside observer, it might look like young people come to The Junction merely to hang out, but Leduc said that after building trust, the adults were able to teach them life skills that they might not have learned elsewhere, such as how to apply for a job, how to cook and how to interact with others in positive ways.
O’Day, The Junction’s youth services director, said she enjoys watching adolescents try on different hats and likes being there for them when they stumble.
“I can’t imagine working with any other population,” O’Day said. “I just love them so much.”
Not everyone feels that way. O’Day said she has been thanked for her service while she’s out grocery shopping.
It’s “as if I just got back from Afghanistan,” she said.
O’Day said she is unsure of her plans for after The Junction closes. The two other staff members have found jobs in other parts of the Listen organization, Fisher said.
Because The Junction is a drop-in center, participants need to learn to interact with people they might not otherwise encounter.
“You learn to tolerate people,” said Tayler Larmie, who spent time at The Junction when he was a student at Hartford High School. He graduated in 2013.
Though Larmie played football and ran track, The Junction helped fill the in-between times. He cooked, which he still enjoys, and played music, billiards and video games.
“It was just a lot of fun,” said Larmie, 22, who now holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Castleton University and is studying for his master’s at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
Larmie said he’s sorry to see it close. “It definitely made an impact on high school students who didn’t really get out much,” Larmie said. “It helped high school students broaden their horizons and open their eyes to what’s out there.”
Xeriah Knyght, a 2018 Lebanon High School graduate, stumbled on The Junction in its Maple Street location while volunteering at one of Listen’s community dinners, which are held in a room across the hall from The Junction. She and her group of friends began spending their free time there.
“It felt like a really safe space,” Knyght said.
The staff provided her with support, and she liked that people over 21 weren’t allowed in, there were no drugs allowed and it was welcoming, including being LGBTQ-friendly, she said.
The organized programs, such as a budgeting course, helped “fill in the gaps that high school left,” she said. And programs would often include pizza, she said.
Knyght participated in a variety of field trips and activities, including attending plays and making crafts. But the most memorable trip, she said, was to the Women’s March in Washington in January 2017. While she had never been to Washington before and the march itself was memorable, Knyght also learned something through the long road trip with eight other people.
“I was forced to deal with people I didn’t really like,” she said. But on a trip that long, she said, they “couldn’t fight.”
Merrihew, Larmie and Knyght are among the Junction’s current and former participants who said they are sad about the closing and uncertain how the void it leaves will be filled.
Knyght said there isn’t another place like The Junction.
“I feel like there’s going to be a huge gap,” she said.
Scott Farnsworth, the assistant director of the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center, also said he wonders where he should refer students who might be in need of The Junction’s shower or washer and dryer once it closes.
Over the years, Farnsworth, who previously worked as director of guidance at Hartford High School, said he would turn to the staff at The Junction to get a “pulse” on any incidents, trends and celebrations related to youths in the community.
“I often wondered, without The Junction, where would some of our kids have landed?” Farnsworth said in an email.
It’s a gap that other communities have also found difficult to fill. The 802 Lounge, which opened in Windsor in 2013 and aimed to fulfill a similar mission, was forced to close after a few years due to lack of funds, said Rachel Chas Williams, former executive director of the group Youth Managed Cafe, which operated the lounge.
It’s “so hard to find who is willing to actually fund it,” said Williams, a 2007 Hartford High School graduate who now lives in Charleston, S.C.
Williams and others in the youth support field said the needs of young people evolve with the times, and it can be hard for adults to keep up.
“I don’t know if anybody has the answer for what exactly it looks like now,” Williams said.
To begin to assess how Second Growth can help fill in the gap that will remain when The Junction closes, Postupack said staff members will begin visiting with the current participants next week.
“It’s a tough thing,” Postupack said. “It’s sad that something has to close.”
At the same time, she said she hopes to help those left without a hangout to “look at other opportunities that open up.”
On Thursday afternoon, Sheilasia Diaz, a 15-year-old Hartford High School student, sat in an armchair at The Junction, waiting for a discussion about a new music program for teens by the Upper Valley Music Center. Diaz said a group of young people has been meeting to brainstorm ideas about what might happen after The Junction closes.
“I’m hoping I can help the other youth to start another thing,” she said.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.