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These Vermont orgs create safe spaces for Black & rural youth with substance misuse prevention funds

A photo showing a circle of children in a circle of different ages inside a plywood-walled and ceilinged room.
Swanton Recreation
Swanton Recreation is using state substance misuse prevention funds distributed by United Way of Northwest Vermont to support its "3rd space" programming intended to provide a supportive environment for youth outside of home and school.

Creating safe spaces for youth — particularly for Black and brown kids, as well as young people in rural areas — is how some Vermont organizations will be spending recently granted state substance misuse prevention funds.

The United Way of Northwest Vermont, which is one of four regional leaders in a statewide effort to prevent substance misuse, recently distributed $372,000 from the Vermont Department of Health Division of Substance Use Programs to 19 organizations in Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle and Washington counties.

One recipient of a $25,000 grant is the Richard Kemp Center, located in Burlington's Old North End. The organization is Black-led and centers the needs of Black and brown community members. It’s named for the Queen City’s first Black city councilor, and run by his daughter, Christine Hughes.

An image showing a number of people in a carpeted and green-walled room. Many of the people are Black.
Richard Kemp Center
A youth talent showcase is held at the Richard Kemp Center in Burlington as part of its "Back In School Block Party."

Hughes said when she was a teenager and living in downtown Burlington, she used to go to the King Street Center.

"It was something that actually offered me an opportunity to get involved," she said. "I think it was the first time I ever sat on a board — like I was a youth member, which was really a pretty amazing experience, and really probably has a lot to do with why I ended up on the path that I've been on."

She added that the Richard Kemp Center similarly involves youth in the design of its programming.

"It can be a very empowering experience for youth, who many times feel like their voices are not necessarily heard,” Hughes said.

The center also celebrates local Black leaders and provides cultural programming that Hughes said is not necessarily as available in Vermont. This can look like raising funds for an April trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., for example.

Activities, she said, "that make people feel like, you know, that they're — that they can connect with that, and then it makes sense to them and it has cultural relevance, you know?"

Watch the Richard Kemp Center visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2023, courtesy of Isaac Owusu:

This kind of programming — in addition to providing a physically safe place with games, movie nights, mentorship, homework support and sports — can act as an alternative to less-safe activities, Hughes said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, providing supervised activities and support for teens can reduce risk of drug use.

And this is why Swanton Recreation, another recipient of the state substance misuse prevention funds, is using its $15,000 grant to support "3rd space" programming — activities based outside of home and school.

"So Swanton is a rural community, and it really is one of those, we'll call it a bedroom community — a lot of our, a lot of our adults leave the community to go to work," said Nicole Draper, Swanton Recreation's executive director. "But our young people don't get that opportunity to leave. ... So building them a space within the community that gives them the opportunity to feel like they've stepped out of their everyday routines is a great way for a young person to find that nurture, that support."

A photo of footsteps in snow leading top an ice rink surrounded by string lights and blue netting on a grey, winter day.
Swanton Recreation
Swanton Recreation offers local families a chance to ice skate in the wintertime.

The town's recreation commission offers crafts, games, camps and, at this time of year, ice skating. Draper said there are also opportunities for teens to become camp counselors and take on responsibilities.

"I can think of one young man who, who has a very complicated home life and struggles academically. He looks forward to coming here and having ... that mature responsibility of being here," Draper said. "You know, he helps with keeping up the grounds, he comes to volunteer his time."

What has a lasting impact, she added, are the relationships young people build through these experiences. Draper said she was once an at-risk young person who made some bad life decisions, but that people who helped her explore her passions allowed her to turn her life around.

"When you're creating those networks with people and you don't feel so alone, it helps you make better choices," she said. "And I think having those choices available or those opportunities available, is a really important part to prevention."

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Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.