Railroad Street Youth Project: Helping teens navigate being teenagers — and beyond
Great Barrington — Being a teenager can be exciting, but it can be scary, too. Almost two decades ago, in 1999, a spate of teenage deaths in South County made it clear that something was very wrong with the environment for local teenagers. Drugs were literally killing off young people. Luckily, an enterprising young woman, Amanda Root, was able to take the lead with the Heroin Task Force and Control Committee, a group formed to combat this scourge. Grownups on the committee kept asking what young people wanted. So Root made the sensible suggestion: “Why not ask them?” And that’s a very brief rendition of how the Railroad Street Youth Project (RSYP) began.
Today, Railroad Street Youth has a $300,000 annual budget, its own building on Bridge Street, and a staff that oversees many programs for local teenagers. Ananda Timpane has served as the executive director for four years, and was on the organization’s board of directors for five years before that. An alumna of Oberlin College who majored in English and women’s studies, she worked in Philadelphia organizing after-school activities.
Timpane moved back to the Berkshires to take a job as outreach educator at the Berkshire Violence Prevention Center where she worked with high school students to deal with sexual harassment, bullying, and dating violence. “It hooked me on continuing to work with young people,” she says.
RSYP provides a wide array of services for teenagers, from something as simple but necessary as a safe place in which to hang out to potentially career-building apprenticeships. In addition to gaining occupational skills in the area they undertake, Timpane says, “important mentoring happens in this program.”
Between 50 and 65 young people take part in the apprenticeships, which are a great opportunity for young people, who can continue the apprenticeship through high school. Typically, there are four to six students in a group.
Perhaps the most well-known of the apprenticeships came about through Steven Root, Amanda’s older brother, who worked at what was then Club Helsinki. He enlisted businessman Steve Picheny, who had started Pearl’s restaurant, to enable the collaboration between Pearls’ chef and the RSYP students. These apprenticeships continue today, taking advantage of such restaurants as John Andrews in Egremont and the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge. In fact, Dan Smith, owner-chef of John Andrews now has two RSYP alumni on his staff.
The other original apprenticeship program was in cosmetology, enabled by Michele’s Salon and Day Spa in Great Barrington. Timpane notes that both programs were responses to the missing pieces of vocational opportunity for high school students in town, and were a great way for youths to connect with the resources that exist in the community.
Now RSYP also provides apprenticeships in coding and robotics, photography, and theatre appreciation and directing. Apprenticeships last for eight to 10 weeks and offer an opportunity for young people to connect with professionals in the southern Berkshire economy.
Asa Hardcastle heads up a crew of computer experts who are teaching RSYP students the ins and outs of computer programming and coding. RSYP’s Theatre and Directing Appreciation program, headed by Caitlin Hugel, is a blend of traditional theatre experiences, including production. The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center wanted to get young people connected with the theatre to put on a production, so Timpane works with the Mahaiwe’s Dave Barrett to develop and promote the program.
Jocelyn Vassos, wedding photographer and owner of Lovebird Studio, worked at RSYP for a few years, and now manages its photography program. Caitlin Hugel has responsibility for RSYP’s apprenticeships and careers, a role she learned about firsthand when she was a teenager being helped by RSYP. In addition to that role, she is a certified sexual health educator in Monument Mountain Regional High School’s Sexual Health Initiative.
Kamal Johnson is RSYP’s associate director and manages its mentoring program. He establishes 22-25 matches each year, and has just started a group mentoring program at Monument Valley Regional Middle School. Students take advantage of the adults’ knowledge and experience, and the mentors get great satisfaction knowing that they are helping a promising young person. Bobby Houston, an Alford resident who has successfully mentored a high school student for four years, says “RSYP is a shining beacon of what a town can do with some goodwill and a little money.”
Luiza Trabka oversees the Youth Operational Board (YOB), and RSYP’s sexual health initiative. The YOB can be considered the lynchpin of RSYP. Its members support projects proposed by youth through micro-loans, donations, mentoring, and advocacy. The intergenerational board meets every Tuesday afternoon when it discusses opportunities for young people who have made proposals.
Programs that emerged from the YOB include a benefit dance for Haiti, the International Day of Peace, trips to the United Nations, and a variety of art shows. A current project is the establishment of a community garden outside RSYP’s headquarters.
RSYP’s office on Bridge Street also serves as its drop-in center. Timpane notes that, after 3 p.m., the music gets turned up as students come in after school. An average of 300 teenagers each year come in after school. Across all of the RSYP programs, between 700 and 800 youths are accommodated.
RSYP has an active and committed board of directors. Board president Barbara Manring became involved with RSYP after attending a culinary dinner they prepared at Pearl’s. Manring is not president in name only: she attends the YOB meetings every Tuesday and is an active fundraiser for the organization.
Manring taught English as a second language when her husband worked abroad. By teaching middle and high school students, she saw how difficult the teenage years can be. She loved teaching and working with young people, so RSYP has been a great fit for her – and them. The RSYP board has 17 members, all locals who know the community and have a strong feeling about helping young people.
Railroad Street Youth Project supports itself in three ways. About one-third of its funds come from grants. Another third comes from private foundations. The remainder comes from people in the community who want to invest in local youth. RSYP has an annual appeal in January, and another in the spring — which is coming up soon. Just sayin’.