January 4, 2022
“My Place Teen Center is the brainchild of Westbrook community members. In 1996, many people came forward and requested that local officials assist them in finding a way to mitigate the rise of teen suicides and substance use disorder. In 1998, Mission Possible Teen Center opened. The need was clearly high and the space too small, so we moved to this former church in 2004 which continues to serve as our home location.
Our mission is to provide kids ages 10-18 with a safe haven to go after school while providing the resources they need to thrive. Many of the people we see struggle mentally and emotionally. Food insecurity is a huge issue. Sometimes they are witnessing substance use in their homes. Others come from difficult poverty backgrounds. It becomes a big part of who they are. But we’re here to help them, so that it doesn’t play a detrimental role in who they become.
When I came in to be interviewed for the position of President and CEO nearly 10 years ago, I was shocked by the condition of the building. The floors were dirty, rooms were filled with broken down furniture, horsehair plaster was coming out of the walls. The building was just falling in on itself and kids were still coming here.
As someone with a background in disabilities with an entrepreneurial interest in helping others, I saw this dilapidated building as an opportunity to prove what I was capable of. Since I’ve been here, every nook and cranny of the building, inside and out, has been renovated.
The home-like design is intentional. From the white-picket fence and gardens outside, to the big tables and couches inside. There are lots of amenities for them to utilize: An art room, computer lab, counseling room, cafeteria and gym. Because a lot of our kids come from homes that don’t feel welcoming and safe. The goal is to set a standard of cleanliness and show them a building full of dignity and respect.
Right now, we also have a temporary location in Saco, and we will be opening up a permanent second location in 2023 at the former Saint Andre’s Church in Biddeford. We’ve raised a lot of money so far, but still need another $400,000 for renovations.
At our Westbrook location, we currently see around 40 to 60 kids per day. We serve around 9,000 meals a year, and expect to serve another 10,000 meals out of our Biddeford location when it opens.
When the kids are here, they have a specialized curriculum to address areas of learning and development they may need, and also give them the option to participate in a financial literacy learning program that rewards them for good behavior and personal development. Basically, kids can earn points, which can later be used to ‘purchase’ trinkets from our small store.
Having a place like this for children to go is crucial to their development. So when the pandemic hit, we were very worried about our kids. We had to get creative in our outreach efforts when we shut down for 6 months.
During that time, we delivered around 250 dinners a day, not only to the kids and their families, but to many others in need. In those early days of COVID, we didn’t know what was safe. We didn’t even know if we were safe outside. So many, many kids in need of help were shuttered in their homes.
When kids were able to return, we saw an obvious impact on how the isolation had impacted their well-being. Many of them are experiencing extreme feelings of loneliness, and with the continued use of cell phones and instant access to social media, these feelings have only been exacerbated.
The truth is, nothing we say or do will instantly make their situations easier. Kids with adverse childhood experiences don’t just get fixed and make their way to the top without struggle. The residual effects of their trauma and strife will follow them for the rest of their lives. Our goal is to help them understand their past and provide them ways to work through it moving forward.
You wouldn’t think that these kids, particularly the ones who engage in risky behaviors, would want to be here creating art or playing card games. But we see it every day and that gives us hope. It’s heartwarming to think that an activity as simple as UNO can keep a child out of a bad situation and allow them to grow into a responsible, kind, considerate adult. Engaging with their peers keeps them off their phones, and reminds them that there are people they can talk to.
Our model has always been love first, and it’s one of the biggest reasons we have several cats here as well. Once, we had this young girl with severe mental health issues who was actively engaging in self harm and we had to call in a crisis response team to assist us. While we waited, we took her upstairs with the cats because we knew she loved animals, and it calmed her down.
Animals are therapy too, because they nurture and love in their own way. Not only our kids, but the people who work here too. It’s a tough job and it takes a lot to run this place. But each and every resource we provide is crucial to these kids.
We are always thinking about their futures and who they will become as adults. Do they have the skillset to be a good role model? Your future neighbor, co-worker? Are they going to get out of first or second generation poverty and be able to hold down a job and go on to college if they choose? Most importantly, what role can we play in helping them to realize their desires in life and in what ways can we support them on their journey?
I do this work because I’m passionate about helping others. I want to be a leader of something I care deeply about. And that’s what this is. When these kids come here and see they are cared for and loved, I feel I have accomplished my purpose in life. That’s the best feeling someone can have, knowing they made an impact in the life of another.” — Donna Dwyer, President & CEO of My Place Teen Center.
For more information or to see how you can help, visit https://myplaceteencenter.org/.