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October 30, 2010 - 11:11pm

Attica couple strives to set up teen center in village

posted by Daniel Crofts in Attica, teens, after-school.

"What's YOUR alternative?"

That's the question Wittnes Smith, of Attica, poses to young people in grades six through 12.

Since moving to the Village of Attica in 2006, Smith and his wife, Tressa, have noticed a couple things: there's not much for young people to do in Attica, and with too much free time on their hands, youths sometimes get involved in things they shouldn't.

So they are working to establish the Club ALT Teen Center in one of the three storefronts of Attica's historic Opera House, which is located at 16 Exchange St. in the village. The aim is to provide teens with alternatives to using alcohol and drugs, and to help them develop a "different outlook on life."

He says there is wide consensus that having a teen center here would be good.

The couple has been actively working on getting the club started for about a year. It would be open during after-school hours to sixth- through 12th-graders in Attica and surrounding areas, including Genesee County.

Village of Attica representatives, while unable to contribute to the project in an official capacity, have said that there are no legal or zoning issues that would prevent a teen center from operating.

Smith has a business license from the state -- which, he says, is all the project requires as far as legal issues go -- and has networked with people and organizations throughout Wyoming County as well as some from Genesee County.

He recently attended a quarterly meeting of the Drug Free Communities Coalition -- a program of GCASA (Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) -- during which people were given a survey and asked what they thought the community should do if given a large sum of money.

Nearly 37 percent of the attendees said they would like to see the money spent on programs for children and youth -- such as after-school programs, more activities for kids during their "down time," education, etc. It was the largest single percentage in terms of support for any one type of program or initiative.

Some supporters have donated money and other necessities to help out. Donations have also come from Batavia businesses. For example, the Batavia Rent-a-Center and BJ's Wholsesale Club have donated equipment and furniture.

The project also has the enthusiastic support of lifelong Batavia resident Mary Ellen Wilber (who is Tressa's aunt).

Wilber is a good voucher for the project. She has decades of insight into rural problems, drug use, youth affairs and public health and worked with the Batavia Youth Bureau for awhile. She served as special advisor to the last four governors.

"Choices for healthy alternatives (to drug use, etc.) are so lacking in rural communities," she said. "The youth need things that will really get them to work together and not just hang out. What Wittnes wants to do is offer fun and inexpensive ways to keep kids occupied."

But there is still quite a ways to go, particularly in terms of funding.

"We need about $5,000 to get started," Smith said. "Right now we have $1,000 -- thanks to the generosity of Attica locals and businesses."

Club ALT's overall start-up budget is $25,000 -- or $5,000 to pay the basic overhead -- and it cannot open until that cost is met. Smith plans to raise money in different ways.

In terms of donations, he hopes, ideally, to have 1,000 people donate $25 each. He also plans on applying for grants and turning to traditional fundraising.

If his record is any indication, Smith's teen center is well worth funding. Before moving to Western New York he lived in Seattle, where he did this same type of work.

In addition to running a teen center for four years -- in partnership with the Metropolitan Development Council -- and doing teen programs in nine middle schools, Smith also created an annual musical event called Gospollo and co-founded a night club called Club Friday. Both are still very successful.

"He was very successful and did great work (in Seattle)," Wilber said. "He knows what he's doing."

At this time, he is in charge of a Cheektowaga-based program called Hype, which gives teens the opportunity to learn about the music industry and develop their artistic skills.

"I'd like to bring these same types of programs to Attica," Smith said.

Attica residents were not quite sure what to expect from Smith's idea. Initially, it was a concern for some people, but not because they didn't think the teen center was worth funding. Like most communities, the village has to prioritize projects and has limited resources for them.

The Village Comprehensive Development Plan was last updated in 2003 and included recommendations for future improvements. One was putting in a courthouse above the new firehouse, which was they did. The plan also called for creating a teen/community recreation/senior center.

Location was one of Smith's first obstacles. According to the village's Comprehensive Development Plan, existing buildings on Main Street should be given priority for appropriate public benefit projects. They ought to be re-used, upgraded and altered to accommodate them, according to the plan.

"There's only one building on Main Street that could be considered for re-use," Smith said, "and that is an old, closed-down coffee house."

Smith considered this option, but the asking price was rather high and it was uncertain whether the owner wanted to sell.

All in all, the Opera House storefront seemed like the best option. Smith is interested in a former Realtor's office that has been vacant for some time. The other two storefronts house a church and a massage business.

If successful, Club ALT will engage teens in a variety of activities, so that there will be something for everyone to get involved in regardless of what his/her interests and needs are.

Examples include film/video production, tutoring and mentorship, field trips to historical sites, a journalism club, prevention programs on alcohol/drugs/tobacco, programs aimed at helping parents better understand adolescents, cooking, recreational activities, and more.

Adults experienced in teaching, and youth and program development would supervise.

"I think people see that (the youth) are our future," Smith said. "What we hope to do (with Club ALT) is gear our future in different directions. Without structure or boundaries, young people can stray into harmful behavior and get into trouble. We hope to give them a different perspective on things that are better for them."

Smith has already set up a website anticipating the center's inception. For more information or to find out how you can help with the project, please visit www.clubalt.org.

Photo submitted by Wittnes Smith

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