A couple of evenings each month over the last three years I have left my comfortable household in Castleton and driven seven miles to Fair Haven to spend a few hours in a storefront with some of the most remarkable and inspirational people I have ever met.
These are the men and women who form the board of directors of Loft 89. You may have read some fleeting news coverage of Loft 89. Its generic description would be “teen center,” a label at once so familiar and so nondescriptive that it practically swallows itself in front of your eyes. Teen center. Ping-Pong and dances and video games. “Drop-ins.” Good intentions. Teen centers come and teen centers go.
Loft 89 — you just have to trust me on this, and please do — has aimed to be more than that. Its founding mandate was to provide recreation and a safe haven for young people with nothing much to do, and also to help stem the appalling tide of mind-crippling drugs that surges from cartel to smuggler through a chain of dealers and finally into the bloodstreams of our children.
But Loft 89 has strived to soar beyond even these worthy goals, which are, in the end, defensive; reactive; designed for damage control. Loft 89’s founders, and its present board, have embraced a vision that is at once noble (I don’t use this word lightly; I can’t think of one that better fits) and maddeningly elusive. This vision has been to awaken the idealism, the energies, the wish to be of use, that reside in nearly every adolescent. And to accomplish this by getting Loft 89 teens involved in work that sharpens their best instincts and leaves a lasting positive imprint on the community: building reclamation. Volunteering to help seniors and children. Working with mentors in dairy farming, small business, wildlife conservation. Discovering musical, writing, dramatic skills.
These goals can be achieved. They have been achieved: Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky; the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, Mich. Others. Closer to home, the Vermont Coalition of Teen Centers has proved a valuable resource for initiatives around the state.
But my focus here is Loft 89, and its prospects, and the tremendous possibilities for our region that its goals contain.
And the obstacles between the board and its goals.
The obstacles have been on my mind as I have sat with the board in its Fair Haven storefront and listened to its deliberations. And occasionally joined in. Rueful admission: I am out of my depth amidst these people — business owners, teachers, mental health practitioners, legal secretaries, parents of local kids. So-called “ordinary people,” who are anything but ordinary, volunteering their time. Their grasp of municipal regulations, building codes, insurance requirements, grant-writing, ethical standards, budgets, the thousand-and-one nuances of forging positive bonds with young people wrapped up in the manifold challenges of adolescence — these are just a few of their qualities that constantly leave me humbled and filled with awe. And that are enacted completely out of the public eye.
I have seen them persevere with quiet dignity to answer the anxieties of parents and town officials who were, at the outset at least, understandably skeptical of their aims and qualifications. I have seen them deeply absorbed in planning something as seemingly trivial (and, in fact, deeply profound) as a movie night in the park across the street or the wording of permission slips for a trip to the Shelburne Museum or the guidelines for supervising the young visitors to the Loft.
I have seen them cut deeply into their evenings at home after a full day’s work at their regular jobs, time after time. I have seen them regather themselves from thwarted hopes and the limits of a constantly threadbare budget. I have seen them laugh together at setbacks, the laughter of good companions. I have yet to see one of them cry. But I have seen two of the best of them resign, with apologies, confessing that they were finally “burned out.”
Yet they are not martyrs, these men and women. They are simply extraordinary ordinary people, fortified, enlarged, by their shared conviction that — like the young people for whom they so passionately care — they have a chance to be of use.
I haven’t mentioned to any of these colleagues of mine on the Loft 89 board of directors — these role models, these friends — that I intended to write this piece. Vermonters in good standing every one of them (save our bright new director, who hails from just across the New York border), they are not comfortable in the limelight.
Well, call me an outlaw. (But not late for dinner.) I’m writing because I thought it was about time to give them some applause. And because their project — their vision, their program of hope into which they have poured their time, some of their money, and their souls — that noble cause is fighting, in these hard economic times, for its existence.
They could use some help in being of use. It would be money well spent. Trust me on this.
Ron Powers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose latest work is a two-act play, “Sam and Laura.” He is writer in residence at Castleton State College.