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Young and Valued

Formed out of tragedy and a growing problem of teens at risk, the Railroad Street Youth Project has become a beacon of hope and empowerment in southern Berkshire County

by Stephen Leon on June 14, 2012

In 1999, Amanda Root was 19 and working as a waitress. What might have been a carefree time for her in picturesque Great Barrington, Mass., was anything but. The transformation of Great Barrington from a sleepy small town to a lively community full of trendy shops and restaurants was complete, spurred mainly by the regional boom in tourism and second-homeownership. And nowhere was the essence of the new Great Barrington more evident than on Railroad Street, where weekend visitors took in the street’s laid-back charm while spending money on anything from stylish clothing to kitchenware, sushi to locally made ice cream.

Photo by Erin Pihlaja

But there was a seething underbelly to Railroad Street and the surrounding town, one that gradually revealed itself in a series of tragedies related to the alcohol and drug abuse that was rampant among Great Barrington’s youth. “Over the course of three years prior to 1999,” Root said in a 2008 interview for Good Morning America, “there was a series of substance-abuse-related deaths. Car accidents, suicides, overdoses . . . and I knew a good deal of the people who were killed.” Fed up with attending friends’ funerals, Root decided to try to do something to help the youth of Great Barrington—and to change the way the community viewed and interacted with its young people.

While most community members were used to a degree of alcohol and marijuana use by teenagers, what took them by surprise was the realization that many Great Barrington youths also were using heroin. A group of concerned adults formed the Heroin Task Force and Prevention Council, and Root, a high-school dropout, began attending the meetings. And one of the things she noticed was that while the adults at the meetings were genuinely searching for answers to the problems of the town’s young people, they weren’t asking any young people for input.

The website for the Railroad Street Youth Project, the nonprofit organization Root founded in response to this series of events, puts it this way: “The adults on the Task Force kept coming back to the same question, ‘What do the young people want?’ Amanda’s answer to this question was, ‘Why don’t you ask the young people?,’ and the seed for Railroad Street Youth Project was sown.

Begun with a $2,500 community-fund grant in 1999, today the Railroad Street Youth Project has a $300,000 annual budget, a spacious drop-in center with access to an adjacent skate park and basketball court, a variety of programs from counseling services to sexuality education to workplace mentoring, and a guiding principle that a way to empower youth is to give them a say in what they’d like to do, and the space and resources to channel their energy and creativity into positive activities.

Like many other people in town in the late 1990s, Ananda Timpane, then still in her teens, knew that young people were using pot and alcohol, but not heroin. “For me and others, and adults,” Timpane says, “we thought that heroin was a thing of the cities, and TV—not Great Barrington.”

The spate of deaths and the sudden realization of the extent of heroin abuse provided a wake-up call to the town and the impetus for the founding of the Railroad Street Youth Project. But in looking back to that time, Timpane, now RSYP’s executive director, observes that some kids in Great Barrington faced another difficulty growing up there, perhaps because the local economy relied so heavily on tourism and transplanted New Yorkers: a feeling of being disconnected from the town and being seen only as a nuisance.

There was a feeling among youth, Timpane says, that “these sidewalks are for the tourists, not for me” . . . and of “feeling undervalued or not valued at all, feeling disconnected.”

To combat this, a core value of RSYP from the beginning is the idea that young people should have an opportunity to voice their own ideas and create their own original projects, and also that they should be able to participate within the larger community. While RSYP always was intended to be a safe haven for youths to come and relax, work on creative projects, or seek help with troubles they might be facing, it was never meant merely as an escape from the world outside.

RSYP’s published mission is “to empower young people by supporting the creation of youth-generated activities that promote self-worth, responsibility and intergenerational respect and communication. . . . RSYP is an advocate and catalyst for opportunities that integrate young people into the community.”

The group’s first youth-inspired project was a production of Eric Bogosian’s play SubUrbia, and youth-generated ideas have been at the core of RSYP ever since. Today, the group’s Youth Operational Board consists of people ages 14 to 25 who review and approve youth-inspired project proposals on a weekly basis. Approved projects receive support and funding from RSYP.

Recent youth-inspired project proposals include the production of monthly all-youth music events, publication of a locally-developed skateboard magazine, a trip to the Norman Rockwell Museum with aspiring graphic and graffiti artists, an apprenticeship with a local music instrument maker to design and build an original drum set, and the production of an original play that brings together the friends and families of suicide victims to raise awareness and offer support around mental-health issues.

RSYP also has assisted young people in a business incubator capacity, offers a mentoring program matching youths with adults in a one-on-one setting, offers apprenticeships with local businesses in culinary arts and cosmetology/barbering, and even has offered internships at a farm in Uruguay. One early RSYP success story is Project Native, a native plant greenhouse started by a 19-year-old woman, which is now a nonprofit organization with a 54-acre farm.

Ultimately, the success of the Railroad Street Youth Project began to manifest itself in other ways. Timpane talks of the group’s goal of “flipping the narrative” from “What’s wrong with these kids” to “What are the kids thinking and feeling”—and how can we integrate them, and their talents, into the community?

A milestone of sorts came in 2008. A young musician named Jules Jenssen had been working with RSYP and was putting on concerts at the old Searles School gym, which required him to work with town officials. When a search was launched for a new police chief, town manager Kevin O’Donnell asked RSYP for a representative on the search committee—and Jenssen was the perfect fit. “I think we all saw that as a marker,” Timpane says. “Jules had been growing a relationship with town officials over time, and that was a real moment of everybody being able to see what’s possible—and to see town officials actually valuing youth.”

The Railroad Street Youth Project headquarters and drop-in center at 60 Bridge Street is recently renovated, and is open and cheerful, with three long, new-ish sofas surrounding a large TV screen, a half-dozen computer stations, pinball, ping-pong and table hockey, and a long work table.

Besides the center’s obvious appeal as a space to hang out, go online, watch TV or movies or work on creative projects, it also is a place to come and discuss their troubles—or not. Timpane says that while some people who walk through the doors may be “disenfranchised”—referring variously to problems involving family, poverty, even homelessness—“It’s not how they have to identify when they come through the door, and it’s not who they have to be when they’re here.”

On the other hand, some youths come in looking for answers they can’t seem to find elsewhere. Back around 2008, for example, young girls would show up concerned about possibly being pregnant, or contemplating entering a sexual relationship, wondering where to find counseling and other resources. RYSP and the Berkshire Violence Prevention Center worked together to set up a task force that included adults from the community but also a 19-year-old woman and a junior and a senior from local high schools. The task force ultimately argued for schools to implement a “full, comprehensive sexuality education that would support empowered decision making,” and Timpane believes the curriculum today is “pretty close to that.”

And Timpane credits the two local high schools, Monument Mountain and Mount Everett, as well as the nearby early college Simon’s Rock of Bard College, with really getting what RSYP is doing, and being very supportive. And there have been cases where students on the verge of dropping out of high school have come in for counseling, learned more about Simon’s Rock, and found that to be the right option—another experience Timpane describes as “empowering.”

And then there are the apprenticeship programs, one of which offers youths a chance to learn the culinary arts at two high-end area restaurants. Brian Alberg, the executive chef at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, has been teaching in the program for about five years. “It has grown into two classes per semester, one taught at the Red Lion Inn and one at John Andrews Restaurant with Chef Dan Smith. I have seen kids stay in the field and excel, one currently works full-time for me and has really grown into a great line cook, another is doing really well at the CIA in Hyde Park. Some stick it out, some don’t, but it is a very rewarding program for the students, myself and the community.”

Youths also have the opportunity to do internships directly with the Project; one of those is Caleb King, who describes himself as coming to RSYP as a “constituent” and has now been an intern for almost a year. “In that time,” he says, “I have learned the power of my own action and voice. I appreciate that I can accomplish something. I can help someone else accomplish something, and all it takes is action and passion. It may sound clichéd, but it’s a lesson that’s often taken for granted.

“I think the biggest effect of the project is something any modern teen could stand to learn,” he continues, “and that is that if you want something it is necessary to sacrifice something else. If you want to go play, you have to sacrifice time. Moving into the adult world, if you want money, you also have to sacrifice time. If you want respect, you have to earn it. The Project really helped me realize how easy approaching, working with, and cooperating with many different kinds of people is. The Project gave me empowerment I wasn’t getting elsewhere, and built and helped me build my own self-confidence.”