Youth center adjusts strategy to aid mental health needs

Photo of Katrina Koerting

DARIEN — Students are entering their third school year affected by the pandemic, which experts say is exacerbating the already existing mental health crisis and why the new Depot Youth Center leadership says their services are needed more than ever.

“These kids’ mental health has really been under assault,” said Laura Downing, the Depot’s first executive director. “We want to be here to alleviate that.”

She and John Novak, the new program director, started a few weeks ago and have begun to examine how the Depot can provide the appropriate resources to the town’s youth.

The pair said they’re looking forward to getting to know the teens better, as well as strengthening and creating connections with the community. They also want to support the existing programs and add new ones to meet the needs.

One of those is a pilot program, Fun Fridays, which kicks off this week. It gives middle school students a chance to have a snack, play games, create crafts, complete STEM activities, but more importantly, just relax, they said.

The Depot was established more than 30 years ago. In 1989, a group of Darien parents and high school students saved a historic train station slated for demolition. It was renovated and opened as a drug and alcohol-free teen center on July 1, 1990.

It is designed to support the youth in town while giving them opportunities to connect, grow and relax. There are a number of leadership and volunteering opportunities, as well as an old-fashioned soda shop and snack bar as well as entertainment options for them.

“We want a place where they can just be kids, especially after the pandemic,” Downing said.

The center serves about 2,500 teens in middle and high school each year, with 430 students enrolled in at least one of the center’s programs, said Michelle Robertson, a member of the board of directors.

The center’s board of directors recently completed a strategic plan to identify ways to improve. Downing said she and Novak plan to work with the board to implement those findings, some of which are already in the works.

One of those ideas was Downing’s hiring as the center’s first executive director.

New leadership

Former Program Director Janice Marzano announced in July she was retiring after 20 years with the Depot.

The board took the opportunity to create the executive director position in addition to finding a new program director.

“We are thrilled to have such a powerhouse team leading The Depot into the future,” said Jenny Tarleton, president of the Depot’s board of directors. “After conducting a strategic review, led by Harvard Community Partners, it was obvious that the Depot needed an executive director in charge of operations and fundraising in addition to someone to lead our second-to-none programming.”

Downing brings more than 10 years of experience with nonprofits. She was most recently director of individual giving at Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk and previously served as deputy director of development of Inspirica in Stamford.

“I’m very excited to be a part of the Depot,” Downing said. “One of the reasons I was drawn to the position is I saw how important the Depot is to the kids in the community.”

Novak was the program director at the Wakeman Boys and Girls Club in Southport and has served in counselor roles at Kids in Crisis in Greenwich.

“I’m energized and inspired by the work that the Depot has always done and look forward to working hand-in-hand with the kids of Darien to explore even more ways of growing, connecting and giving back,” Novak said.

He said he’s looking forward to the one-on-one interactions the smaller space offers.

“I fell in love with it right away,” Novak said.

‘Tremendous amount of upheaval’

Downing said students were already faced with anxiety and depression due to the high amount of pressure they face under normal circumstances. The pandemic has just amplified this, creating a “cascading mental health crisis.”

“That’s a tremendous amount of upheaval for these kids,” Downing said. “But the Depot is here for them.”

She said she doesn’t have Darien statistics, but neighboring Norwalk recently released the results of a survey that showed more than half of the students who responded reported experiencing anxiety or depression.

“It’s jarring,” she said.

Novak said so many of the teens in Darien have hectic schedules, going from school to sports and other extracurricular activities. He said it’s important for them to have a safe place where they can relax with their friends at the end of the week.

Robertson said that’s why she’s looking forward to the start of the Friday program. The Noroton Heights construction has made it harder for Middlesex Middle School students to go to the places they had after school, and having this program will provide an option, she said.

“The pilot program is really exciting for us as parents in the community,” she said. “We want a place for our kids to be safe and have a place where they can come after school.”

All of them said having somewhere for teens to go that isn’t home or school and have adults who aren’t their parents is a huge asset. The leadership, mentoring and other programs also help prepare the teens for different challenges.

Going forward

Some of the other items from the strategic plan include additional learning opportunities for parents to understand and combat ways their children might be struggling. There will also be more peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities, she said.

Student League of Darien is already one of those established mentoring programs, providing opportunities for male upperclassmen and underclassmen to get together.

Downing said they have other ideas they would like to explore as they get to know the teens and community better.

She has already met with the Darien YMCA and plans to meet with the guidance counselors at the middle and high schools to ensure the work aligns, as well as the Darien Community Fund.

“What we’re finding is in the community, a lot of different agencies are doing wonderful work, but it can be siloed,” Downing said. “What we found is we’re stronger as one.”

She said the Depot’s success is due to an investment of the community’s “time, talents and treasures,” something she already sees happening and hopes to expand.

Part of that is helping to spread the Depot’s mission.

“I want the Depot to continue to be a household name in the Darien community,” Novak said. “If it’s not in every household, it will be.”