From left: Tenn Center Coordinator Merideth McClurg, Fryeburg Rec Director Rick Buzzell and Pequawket Valley Health Initiatives director Chris Whitaker

From left: Tenn Center Coordinator Merideth McClurg, Fryeburg Rec Director Rick Buzzell and Pequawket Valley Health Initiatives director Chris Whitaker

Fryeburg Rec Teen Center Sponsored by Pequawket Valley Health Initiatives

FRYEBURG, Maine — The Fryeburg Recreation Department plans to open a teen center for students who attend Fryeburg Academy and the Molly Ockett School to use. The after-school program, which is being sponsored by Pequawket Valley Health Initiatives, is scheduled to begin Monday, Sept. 14.

In an interview Wednesday at the Field of Dreams complex, Rec Director Rick Buzzell said the center is for kids age 13-17. He said he “heard through the grapevine” that Chris Whitaker, founder and president of Pequawket Valley Health Initiatives, was looking to get a program like this going.

“I thought it offered an opportunity to make a great partnership,” Buzzell said. “And we’ve we met quite a few times and talked and he met with our rec group.”

“I told them my vision,” said Whitaker, who lives in Fryeburg. “My group primarily does substance abuse, and we’re already in the schools and fund a counselor to go to the schools three days a week. And our goal is to get those kids after school who don’t participate in any activity, just to give them a safe place to go to.”

Pequawket Valley Health serves Fryeburg, Denmark, Lovell, Stoneham, Brownfield, Bridgton and Stow in Maine, along with North Conway, Conway and Chatham in New Hampshire.

Whitaker and Buzzell researched the teen population in the area.

“There are approximately 150-200 kids in that age group who do nothing else,” Whitaker said, pointing out they do not play sports after school or are involved in other clubs or activities.

“This was pre-COVID. And so you know, they go home — maybe nothing’s at home. We thought if they knew there was a safe place and that they could do different activities, they might be interested,” Whitaker said.

“I really don’t know what the interest is going to be,” said Buzzell. “It could be just six kids or it could be 60; we’ll have to wait and see. … We’ll go for eight weeks to start because we have no idea what is going to happen.”

Buzzell added: “The key to making this a success is finding the right person.”

Enter Fryeburg Academy grad Meredith McClurg, who had come in and talked about doing some things over the summer with the Rec. “I just was very impressed and heard nothing but compliments and rave reviews,” Buzzell said.

“So I think we found the right person. She’s got a lot of great ideas. Introducing yoga was one of the big things kids really liked at Indian Acres (summer camp). There’s gardening, cooking, it’s limitless, but I think we’ll start out simple and see where the interest takes us,” he said.

McClurg admitted she’d never been a teen center coordinator before. But she said she has worked with kids “a ton in organizing camps” over the years.

As for the teen center, “I think it’s such an opportunity for this town,” she said.

She said the center will operate from 2:30-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Students must register, but there is no charge to attend.

Pequawket Valley, which also sponsored $2,000 in personal protection equipment for Fryeburg schools, is funding McClurg’s position.

“I’ve been trying for years to get this revolving account started through the town government,” Buzzell said. “That finally went to vote to summer, and it passed. … This way, (Whitaker’s) organization will donate to the town, and the town will hire Meredith.”

“Anything to help the kids out we support,” added Whitaker. “We want to keep them safe and active. The cool thing about this is if we have a counselor at school, she can pass the word about the teen center.”

Pequawket Valley, which a 501(c)(3) organization, is involved in the health curriculum at Fryeburg Academy and the middle school at Molly Ockett.

Buzzell is hosting a sign-up night for fall programs, including the teen center, on Thursday, Sept. 10, from 4-6 p.m., at the Rec fields, located next to the Rec building at 59 Recreation Drive in Fryeburg.

Weather permitting, sign-up night will be held outside, but if it rains, sign-up will be upstairs at the recreation center, and parents should use the upper parking lot.

Although geared toward the 13-17 age group, Buzzell said there is some leeway on ages.

“I had a parent reach out to me; they’ve got a 12-year-old in seventh grade who will be turning 13 in December,” he said. “Obviously, they fit. And then on the other end, the 18-year-old seniors, we’re not going to say no.

“If they’ve come through the rec program, too, and they have the experience, they could end up being a good volunteer source and it would give them some ownership in the program to help,” Buzzell said.

Teen center users will have to go through a health screening, including getting their temperature checked, before taking part in the daily activities. Masks will be required.

“We’ll do the screening, the temp checks and then we’ve got a ton of hand sanitizer. Everybody will get sanitized before they come in,” said Buzzell. “Then we’ve budgeted to have somebody clean this facility and the bathrooms on a daily basis good and thoroughly.”

Whitaker started his organization after attending a forum at Fryeburg Academy on opioid abuse where there were lawyers, politicians, police officers and teachers.

“I attended with a gentleman (the late Tom Shaffner in 2016), and he nudged me to raise my hand and find out what they’re doing in the schools, and I didn’t get a direct answer on how they’re educating the kids” on drug abuse, he said.

“We saw a need for more parent and teen resources for drug addiction and abuse, so we started thinking we’ve got to start something,” Whitaker said.

After Shaffner passed away, “I kind of kept it going. In my first meeting, we had 35 people. And we have a board of four people right now, and we rely on a foundation that (Shaffner) created to help support educating youth on substance abuse,” Whitaker said.

On its website (pvhi.org), Pequawket Valley Health Initiative says it “aims to find ways to promote healthy living and curb teen substance abuse in western Maine and New Hampshire towns.”