August 30, 2006

After-School Haven Westhampton Drop-In Center Welcomes Kids

It's that time of year again. As summer fades and the back-to-school rush heats up, along with the frenzy of school-supply shopping comes the nagging concern faced by working parents across the board: What are kids going to do after school?

If a student is not involved in after-school activities or sports, the hours between the dismissal bell and the time when parents return from work loom large. Parents fear their children, for lack of constructive after-school pursuits, will end up hanging out and getting into trouble.

In Westhampton Beach, there's a solution for middle school students, a safe place where they can congregate, socialize and receive homework help, too: The Drop-In Center, sponsored by HUGS Ė a Westhampton Beach-based organization that sponsors Human Understanding and Growth seminars for kids, with a drug-and-alcohol prevention program on Shelter Island for teens — is now open for business and ready to greet the new school year.

The tentative fall schedule for the drop-in center, located at 39 Mill Road in Westhampton Beach, is from 4 to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday nights.

The center, said director Kym Laube, has long been a vision. "I wanted to provide a safe place in the community that kids feel is theirs. That's what this center's done — given a safe place for them to be, to bond, play, and network, in a non-traditional kind of environment."

Since doors opened last May, kids have flocked to activities including a full-sized pool table, ping-pong, foosball, a lounge area with movies, board games and a video room. Outdoor games include bocce, badminton, volleyball and football. In the fall, a room with homework help and arts and crafts will open.

Currently, the center is manned by a staff member from Southampton Town, as well as a staff member from HUGS; volunteers are needed for homework help.

In order to utilize the facility, kids must become members at a cost of $25 per year.

Initially, said Laube, HUGS rented a room in the building and, when the Peconic Community Council moved out in November, "we felt it would be the perfect set-up."

But the building, "a very old house," was "pretty drab-looking," said Laube. That's where giving hearts galvanized: Village resident Andrea Kaloustian, for instance, volunteered to make denim curtains tied back with bandanas; a local painter pitched in, too — at no cost. "Everything in the space has been donated, which is pretty impressive."

Hours of working and dreaming paid off as kids have begun to reap benefits. "There are definitely some kids who are there at 5:59 and they leave at 10:01," the director said.

Laube fosters a positive environment: "We have a two-fer rule. If somebody says one negative thing, even if it's joking around or teasing, they have to come back with two positive affirmations."

Creating a safe place is integral to keeping harmful influences at bay. "When we talk about drug and alcohol prevention, kids who feel connected, and especially connected at the heart, are much more apt to make better decisions," she said.

Funding for the drop-in center, said Laube, was achieved on "a hope and a dream," as well as a $10,000 grant from Southampton Town. But the program will cost approximately $25,000 to run; assistance is still needed. To that end, fund-raising efforts are ongoing. "We want to be open more often, and open for high school kids, too, but right now, we just don't have the money."

A caring community can meet the needs of the center in a number of crucial ways. "Financial support is the biggest thing we need. People have made me offers of pianos and pool tables — I don't have the space. We really need the money to support additional staff." Arts and crafts supplies are always welcomed.

For Laube, the center has offered tangible rewards. "I love when the kids walk in for the first time and you hear them go, 'Whoa!'"

The center focuses on middle school students primarily because they are at an influential age. "In the fight against drugs and alcohol and negative choices, we need to get to these kids as quickly as we can, in whatever fashion we can. It's about connecting them as early as we possibly can, to give them the most positive influence," said Laube, adding, "The alcohol industry doesn't let up on its incessant bombardment of kids with messages or admit they've gone too far. Kids are such victims to alcohol marketing. Why, as parents and the community, don't we go even further?"

For more information on the Drop-In Center, or to volunteer, call (631) 288-9505.

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