A place of their own: The Depot youth center begins annual appeal

A new face has been welcomed to The Depot, Darien’s youth center, with the hiring of Kesti Aysseh as executive director of development — just in time for its annual appeal. Aysseh has worked with the Darien Foundation, Tiny Miracles, served on the board of the Darien YMCA and the town’s Firefighters’ Foundation. Aysseh played a significant role in the organization of the town’s Fourth of July fireworks when sponsored by the Firefighters’ Foundation.

The oldest teen center in the country, The Depot, is for and run by students. This past school year, over 45 different social and community outreach programs took place there.

“With over 1,000 students walking through the doors, in total our Depot kids have logged over 5,000 community-based volunteer hours per year. The Depot is the longest running youth center in the U.S, serving the Darien for over 25 years,” Aysseh said.

As a town resource, The Depot serves numerous roles. It offers a variety of programs including its own Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and the Student Governing Board. This year, it sponsored a mental health speaker series for the town’s youth and parents.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said The Depot “provides a unique place for kids to come together in a substance and stress-free environment to enjoy each other’s company, work on community service projects and to learn community leadership skills.”

“For some, The Depot is a safe haven and home away from home. Darien is so fortunate to have The Depot Youth Center and all the adult role models who work tirelessly to provide a healthy environment for our kids,” she said.

Darien High School alumni Sarishka Desai said she was involved in the Student Governing Board and SADD.

“SGB is an environment for students to plan alternative programming outside of school. The freedom, trust (and, of course, funding) to see events that they want to happen come to fruition is truly unique to The Depot, and why these events are notoriously well-attended by the high school community,” she said.  

• Editorial: Community has important resources in The Depot

“Participating in SADD gave me the opportunity to communicate and share my ideas with key members of our community, from First Selectman Jayme Stevenson to members of the Police Department, as a high schooler,” she said.

“When talking about The Depot, it is impossible to not talk about The Depot director, Janice Marzano. Along with all the other adults involved with The Depot, she is a great and trustworthy resource for kids and adults of all ages, and is beloved by all,” Desai said.

Another Depot alumni, Kristi Carey, said she “learned so much about the meaning of slowing down, open vulnerability, resilience, mentorship, and, perhaps most importantly, self-respect.”

“Under Janice Marzano’s direction, The Depot was the first place that I remember actively listening to stories of humans whose lives were so unlike mine, and the first place where I was allowed to process that listening in ways that weren’t always put together, that were completely messy and unfinished but always loving and empathetic,” Carey said.

In October, Emily Torchiana, a TEDx mental health speaker spoke to over 150 kids/parents who asked questions and participated in a conversation about mental illness and suicide prevention.

”Coffee and Conversation,” a long standing adults only programming series that compliments the programs put on for kids. Last week, The Depot hosted Robert DiRoma, LMSW, LADC, who specializes in substance and alcohol abuse and mental illness. His topic was “Depression the Silent Killer.” Over 20 people attended this event and asked questions on topics relevant to teen suicide, addiction, anxiety and depression.

SADD and the Student Governing Board plan on having speakers on topics such as power and privilege, consent, healthy relationships, screen addiction, gender identity, eating disorders (with Silver Hill Hospital) and caring relationships.

The Depot also serves as the Youth Service Bureau under the auspice of Depot Program Director Janice Marzano. Marzano serves as the Youth Service Bureau director providing referrals to parents and children who need support and find themselves in a crisis. As YSB director, Janice works closely with the Darien school system and the Stamford and Norwalk court systems. Lastly, as part of her YSB director role, Janice serves on the Juvenile Review Board in collaboration with the Darien Police Department. The JRB was created in 2017 by the DPD Youth Division as a pre-court diversion alternative for juveniles in Darien.

“The Depot provides a safe, supervised, inclusive environment that is drug and alcohol free in which kids can gather to eat, play games, and socialize after school and on the weekends. Over 1,000 kids a year use the Depot,” Aysseh said.

Town officials

Various town officials and residents told The Darien Times how important The Depot is to Darien.

Darien Police Chief Ray Osborne said The Depot has been such a valuable resource for the Darien Police Department over the years.  

“Our officers are very closely engaged in many programs based out of The Depot such as Cops and Kids, SADD, the Youth Academy and others,” he said.   

“It also gives our officers the opportunity to randomly stop in and interact with the Darien youth as we continue to try and build positive relationships through these informal contacts.  Janice and her staff have been very supportive of our efforts and we continue to have an excellent working relationship,” Osborne said.

Officer T. Court Isaac, who spearheaded The Depot’s Cops and Kids program, said The Depot is a safe place where the youth in town can hang out, play, learn, and work with other youth on developing into community adults.

“I’ve spent a lot of time there over my 22 years getting to personally know many of the youth who go there as well as seeing firsthand the relationships developed there. Not enough can ever be said about the work Janice Marzano has done there developing and changing lives of many youth for the betterment of all,” he said.

Interim Darien Schools Superintendent Dr. Elliott Landon said he strongly supports a safe place for teens to gather, socialize and engage in positive and productive activities when school is not in session, a place that is carefully supervised by caring and dedicated adults.  

“In these stressful times, for middle and high school youth to have a community-supported facility that is alcohol and drug-free where they can gain leadership and positive decision-making skills without being judged for their thoughts and opinions, is a wonderful community asset,” Landon said.   

Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman John Sini said “The Depot allows Darien's teens to develop relationships and support networks among each other while discovering ways to give back to their community.”

The building costs almost $90,000 a year to operate and maintain. Despite the town’s support, this year, The Depot is faced with two major capital projects — replacing the kitchen floor and fixing the water leak that is under the parking lot. The Depot building itself is used for a variety of youth, school and family related events. The Depot also offers opportunities for youth leadership and volunteering logging in over 5,000 hours a year.

Depot kids have fundraised for the Special Olympics, tsunami victims, Darfur, Darien Human Services, Person-to-Person and more.

Marzano serves on various town boards, including Parent Awareness as part of the Darien-Norwalk YWCA, Human Services Planning Council, Kiwanis Club, CYSA (Connecticut Youth Service Association), Darien Domestic Abuse Council, the governor’s Opioid Task Force, and the Lower Fairfield Teen Center Council.

Darien High School alumnus Kate Morant said The Depot established “a commitment to always take an active role my community; for the opportunity to learn from those I don't interact with in my normal social or day-to-day circles, and also as a responsibility to give back.”  

Morant particularly emphasized the importance of The Depot’s police partnership and programming.  

“Even rambunctious teenagers realize the law is there to protect rather than harm or discriminate while the cops can see transgressions from multiple perspectives and can offer positive options or alternatives,” she said.

“It has been six years since I graduated from Darien High School and I am currently helping to start a free clinic at my medical school for victims of human rights abuses seeking asylum,” Morant said.

“Whenever I join such initiatives, I often think back to The Depot and everything that I learned and came to value and prioritize,” she said.

To donate to The Depot’s annual appeal, visit dariendepot.com.