Andover Youth Services Secures New Home

While Phillips Academy students were cramming for finals this past Fall Term, Andover Youth Services (AYS) were prepping for their own final test – the December 5 special town meeting vote where the town pledged $2 million to build­ the Andover Youth Center.

As students headed triumphantly into winter break, AYS celebrated with a similar victorious sentiment. After years of efforts, AYS is finally getting a permanent home.

Andover residents voted 1,422 to 401 in favor of directing the $2 million towards the $4.2 million, approximately 20,000 square feet Cormier Youth Center. Andover Youth Services raised $2.2 million on its own, including a $1.5 million private donation from Andover residents Yvon and Noella Cormier.

Years of telethons and hard work have helped AYS move forward since 1994, when then director Bill Fahey was the only employee. In 1995, the first proposal to build a youth center was narrowly defeated.

“I remember [the defeat] vividly. I remember the young people being upset and crying,” said Stapczynski, town manager for 22 years and a supporter of the youth center even back in 1995.

“I met with Bill, and I said ‘Ok, you’ve got to get up and dust yourself off, and strengthen the programming,’ and that’s exactly what he did,” he continued.

Through thriftiness and creativity, AYS has made the most out of temporary homes.

They operated from a 300 sq-ft office until two years ago, when volunteers renovated 37 Pearson Street, a duplex in downtown Andover.

The AYS house was designed with kids in mind. It has drums, board games, crafts, hilarious staff members, comfy couches, murals and a Halloween-esque maid statue wearing a “Believe” shirt. The front desk displays rows of colorful flyers for their impressive repertoire of programs, including everything from wrestling to cooking classes.

At 6:30 on an average school night, the house is bustling. Afton, the newest member of the AYS staff, enthusiastically helps a group of middle school girls making leopard print bags at “Fashion Club.” The Andover Youth Council crowds around a conference table upstairs.

And AYS’s presence extends far beyond their Pearson Street headquarters. They utilize school space like gymnasiums and classrooms for their after school programs; in 2011, AYS programs serviced a total of 6,000 participants. They organize sport teams, run summer trips, present an annual fashion show, host town-wide dances, and sell Christmas trees.

“Some people might know us for the Telethons, other people might know us for building the biggest skate park in Massachusetts, or starting lacrosse. Right before you came in, a woman called to say ‘We’re trying to start girls JV hockey at the high school, would you support us?’ So we do programming all across the board,” said Fahey.

“I think AYS has grown to a point where they’ve maxed out their use of schools,” said Stapczynski. “They need a home of their own to take things to the next level.”

AYS garnered significant support for the project in weeks leading up to the vote, however, some Andover residents remained skeptical. Positive headlines like “Build youth center now” and “Youth center would increase town’s desirability” filled the opinion section of the Andover Townsman, but letters like the one titled “How can we pay for the youth center?” also staked a claim.

“There aren’t many people that think there’s not a need for the [youth center.] The main concern [was] the funding,” said Tanklefsky. According to Tankelfsky the youth center will not raise taxes, but will draw from existing tax revenues.

Some, however, still worried if the youth center was the most responsible way to spend town money with the Andover town budget already stretched thin.

“We need to tighten our belts. We cannot have everything. Schools have been forced to reduce the number of teachers to accept further budget reductions,” said Andover resident Charles Henry in a letter to the Townsman in November.

Another point of conflict was the local Y’s plans to build a $20 million addition which will include a “teen wellness center.” Andover resident Calvin Perry wrote to the Townsman suggesting the town “Pay[s] for Y memberships instead of a youth center.”

“[The YMCA] is a national organization with a national model. The youth services is more of a youth-development model, about its community, about its kids, being able to react to community issues quickly and efficiently. We’re connected to the schools and all the community groups,” said Fahey while explaining AYS and the Y’s separate niches.

“When we start to talk to people about [our plan], they get it, and they’re no longer in opposition,” said Tanklesfky.

AYS was optimistic that the vote on December 5th would demonstrate widespread support for the project.

“We’ve got 3 big leadership groups that are going to say ‘Yeah we believe in this project, and these are our votes.’ It’s huge!” said Fahey.

The School Committee voted 3 to 1, the Board of Selectmen voted 4 to 1 and the Finance Committee voted 4 to 3, all in support.

The Andover Soccer Association, which serves 3,000 families, voted 24 to 0 in favor. The Andover High School student council, the Andover Youth Council and numerous town sport groups have come together to support the project.

“I am in full support, and I will vote for it, and speak for it at town meeting,” said town manager Buzz Stapczynski.

“The response is pretty overwhelmingly in favor of [the youth center],” said David Tanklefsky, who is volunteering as Media Relations Coordinator for the last “big push” of the youth center campaign.

Earlier on the day of the final vote, he worked with a group of student volunteers to persuade downtown businesses to put “Believe” signs in their store windows. All but one store agreed. The owner of Indra Salon even offered to give free massages to anyone who voted yes.

A small, vocal group of remaining opponents had taken drastic measures to undermine the campaign.

This group contended that Fahey’s downtown picketing for the youth center violated State Ethics 11.1, which covers the rules for political advocacy by public employees. They alerted the State Ethics Commission, resulting in an Eagle Tribune editorial titled “Stunts hurt youth center backers’ credibility.”

Fahey said he has been contacted by the State Ethics Commission, but that he did not feel he had violated any rules.

“You gotta be kidding me. This is what it comes down to? We’re getting close on the youth center vote, and someone’s not happy with it, so now people are starting to make things up! Fine, write whatever story you want in the paper, but make sure it’s true,” he commented on the editorial.

In an online version of the article, comments are mostly supportive of Fahey and the youth center. Commenters found particular issue with one of the final lines of the article, one of which reads “The politicizing of the town’s children in support of their cause is distasteful at best.”

Individuals participating in the comments section defended the groups efforts, arguing that involving middle and high school students in the youth center campaign perfectly fits AYS’s mission of working with and empowering the town’s youth.

Andover High School senior Jessica Lem, a member of Andover Youth Council, says she spends about three hours a day, five to six days a week at Pearson Street. She wrote postcards and makes phone calls to urge residents to vote on December 5. She attended the meetings where AYS garnered the support of the school committee and the soccer association.

“We’ve gotten big support from parents, the school board, and everything, so I’m very certain we’re going to get this vote,” she said.

Stapczynski said, “I think this is the time now. They’ve got so much momentum going for them.”

AYS and its supporters’ optimistic prediction proved to be true, and support for the Youth Center won out. Fahey says construction should start the day public school gets out in 2013.