Respect, responsibility, and leadership. If I had to pick, I would select these three words to describe the underlying core values of my upbringing. In high school, the rock upon which I founded and developed these three traits was through the Winchester Youth Center. I still recall the summer before my Freshmen year of high school when I walked through the doors of the youth center with anxious anticipation to meet with the director, Rebecca Levine. I was escorted by my older sister who encouraged me to have my very own “spiel with Becca” and become a fully fledged Peer Leader. This spiel is a rite of passage for all who wish to become Peer Leaders. Within this meeting, Rebecca asks the high schoolers their motives for wanting to join the youth center, as it is so much more than a club.
Currently located in the basement of the middle school, the youth center serves both middle school and high school students, although in different capacities. For middle schoolers, it’s a drop-in center for after school where students can hang out, work on homework, and engage with the positive influences of the Peer Leaders. High-schooler who become Peer Leaders, use the space to develop as leaders of the community. They attend weekly meetings run by Rebecca, plan events for their peers to provide alternatives to partying, like coffee houses. They also plan and participate in community service activities such as Relay For Life of Winchester or their annual Habitat for Humanity trip.
However, the youth center is and means so much more to the Peer Leaders that populate it. As Rebecca often reminded me during my time with the youth center, being a Peer Leader is not just a title, it’s a way of life. I personally interpreted that to mean that I should always show respect to myself and others, I should always take responsibility for my actions, and I should always be a leader even when it’s tough. The beauty of the youth center is that each student impacted by the youth center may take away a unique and specific life lesson catered to them, but it all falls under the youth center’s mission of youth development and youth leadership.
Honestly, it’s very difficult thing to take a place like the youth center and articulate the ways in which it has impacted me. What I can say is three years past my high school graduation, I still return to the youth center on breaks. I sit on the worn couches and gaze at the ceiling panels decorated by past Peer Leaders. I smile at the murals that have been designed by my peers. I remember how every inch of the walls have been painted five times over by peer leaders in the four years that I was there. In every inch of paint that I see, I recognize the place I had a hand in creating. I recognize my home.
It has recently become evident that, by a vote from the School Committee, the youth center will no longer be able to reside in the space in which it has existed for the past 16 years. With this understanding, it’s important to recognize the true heart of the youth center. The youth center would not be the place it is today, just as I would not be the person I am today, without the guidance and affection of Rebecca. Although the fate of the physical youth center is uncertain, as long as Rebecca has the reins, I am not worried. With Rebecca in charge, Peer Leaders will still learn the meaning of respect, responsibility, and leadership.