(EMILY BENSON PHOTO)
(EMILY BENSON PHOTO)
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Colin Sparling, 17, stalks the pool table, looking for his best shot. His opponent, eighth-grader Louis Ortiz, watches as Colin hunts for the perfect angle, takes his shot and sinks the ball.

Since the Daniel J. Palm Teen Center in Stamford opened in early June, the two teens have played pool there almost every day. The new center at 66 Main Street operates under the sponsorship of Sacred Heart parish in Stamford. It offers games, educational and recreational programs, and a safe space for local children and teens to spend their summer days or free time after school. It’s open Mon.-Thurs., 3-7 p.m., and Fridays from 3-9 p.m.

The parish community “was very excited about it, because our children are our future,” said parishioner Ania Krasinski, co-director for the center. “It’s a safe space and a fun space. We help with school tutoring [and offer] games, pool, and have pizza nights on Friday.”

The center was named after Sacred Heart parishioner Daniel J. Palm, who is the parish’s resident grant writer, as well as an usher and greeter. “He does so much for the church,” said Rev. Michael Cambi, pastor.

Two months after opening, the Daniel J. Palm teen center has been declared a success.

“It’s awesome,” said Louis, who will enter eighth grade at Stamford Central School in the fall. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this. It’s better than I expected.”

“I’m here every Friday,” said Kelly Ludwig, senior at Jefferson Central School. “It’s nice. There isn’t much in town at all.”

Last week, Mrs. Krasinski took the young people who come to the center to an outdoor high ropes course. They donned harnesses and climbed through obstacles 25 to 38 feet above the ground.

One teen, who is blind, participated in the ropes course with help from the other group members. “It’s like a family” at the center, said Mrs. Krasinski.

“Every day is a new adventure,” said Monica Bavis, a parishioner who volunteers at the teen center. “We just love being around these kids. It’s amazing how we came together.”

In early 2017, Father Cambi created a focus group for parishioners to discuss ways in which the parish could better serve the community. Dennis McKenna suggested the idea of opening a place for teens to hang out, something the small village of Stamford didn’t have. Mr. McKenna is now co-director of the center. Parishioner Evelyn Augusto helped locate a building in town to rent and worked with the co-directors and Father Cambi on creating the center.

“These are kids who have less opportunity in their lives, and with that comes trouble,” explained Mr. McKenna, referring to the poverty level in the area. “The teen center is here to catch teens before trouble” hits.

A social worker by trade, Mr. McKenna knew the importance of having a space for teens in such a rural town. While the focus of the teen center is to provide a safe space, Father Cambi also sees a chance to evangelize non-Catholic youth who are open to learning about the faith.

This fall, Mrs. Krasinski hopes to recruit more adult volunteers to help younger children with homework and older teens with exploring options for college.  

Father Cambi said the center strives to affirm in teens “that adults do care about them and about their future,” something that some young people may not get from their parents. The pastor said that “sometimes home isn’t a safe place,” so the center gives young people an opportunity to get help and guidance.

Colin, who lives with a foster family in town, said that when he doesn’t want to stay at home, he comes to the teen center: “I come here with my friends [to] play pool and be myself.”

Another issue the center hopes to address is Delaware County’s brush with drug and opioid abuse in the past few years. Father Cambi said helping to prevent kids and teens from that lifestyle “was certainly one of the goals of the center.”

“Drug use around here is really bad,” Colin told The Evangelist. “I see more and more people around here glorifying” the use of drugs.  

The 17-year-old spoke about his own history with drugs. Now 11 months sober, he hopes to be a mentor for other teens at the center and help them stay on the right path.

The wider Stamford community’s response to the center has been extremely positive. Because the center is a non-profit, Sacred Heart parish absorbs all the associated costs, such as rent, utilities and supplying furniture, totaling about $15,000 a year.

So far, the parish has been blessed with donations, receiving checks from anonymous donors that have covered the cost of rent, and even a donated security system. Mrs. Augusto found donors who provided a large flat-screen television, a leather couch, a pool table and a foosball table.

“We need more places like this,” Colin said. “It’s really awesome here. We come here and have fun.”