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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

‘It’s hard to tell them they can’t hug their friends’: Addison Central Teens navigates acting as a support system amidst a pandemic

At Addison Central Teens (ACT), a local teen community center, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about heart-wrenching moments while also revealing resilience and strength. ACT has provided support and programming for local teens since 2008. Its goal is to provide a space for teens to spend time with peers and do activities led by adults who are not there to discipline but rather to encourage, support and help them as they navigate adolescence. As with all aspects of life this year, the challenges presented by Covid-19 have had a pronounced impact on the center’s operations. 

The center’s director, Cicilia Robison ’18, addressed the difficulties of operating throughout the pandemic in an interview with The Campus.

“It certainly hasn’t been the easiest thing we’ve ever done,” Robison said. “But kids are often more resilient than we think they will be.”

In a normal year, ACT has drop-in hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day after school. This year, ACT has added more drop-in times for remote learners: 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“We provide free internet, a place [to work] not next to their parents and younger siblings who are all trying to do things remotely,” Robinson said. “[We provide] that kind of escape because families are definitely getting sick of each other.”

There have also been changes to the way ACT runs its programs. Nicholas Leslie ’19, who serves as the Youth Program and Engagement AmeriCorps Member for the center, described the new operations. 

“I am now often the only person in the front,” Leslie said. “We limit the access to the games like air hockey, foosball, pool table. If they use the computer, it has to be for school work. Despite having a little bit less assistance, in some regards it’s been cool to have greater access for teens.”

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, Middlebury students often attended drop-in hours. ACT has historically had strong ties with the college, but the pandemic has impacted this relationship. Historically, around 16 students normally volunteer in-person, but none have been able to go to the center this semester due to Covid-19 safety restrictions that bar college students from interacting with the K-12 population.

“Typically, college students have volunteered during drop-in hours to make mentoring relationships, near peer relationships, and we don’t have a ton of other work outside of that. Other volunteering opportunities have been deep cleaning the center, but now we have a professional cleaner who comes in once a week, to make sure it’s extra clean for Covid-19,” Robison said.

Despite the challenges presented by the virus and the inability of Middlebury students to participate at this time, Robinson is optimistic that the pandemic has not changed Middlebury’s relationship with ACT and that all of its benefits to the kids will continue into the future.

“We’ve had volunteers and student workers since well before I got here, and I’m sure that will continue after I’m gone. It’s been really great to have those relationships with the college kids,” Robinson said.

Two Middlebury students are currently working with the center remotely. One student focuses on grant writing and the other runs a Dungeons & Dragons game. Playing games has always been one of the activities that ACT offers, and when Covid-19 forced a transition to completely remote work, the center adapted by moving as much programming online as possible. The center also updated its Linktree on Instagram to add a mix of educational and fun resources as well as tips for how to stay sane in a global pandemic.

ACT has been able to restart in-person activities recently, but they still offer many events at least partially online. With reopening, Robinson noted familiar challenges in organizing gatherings.

“It really is about making sure the kids keep their masks on, and they’ve struggled with the physical distancing aspect as well,” Robinson said, “By the time kids are done with school they've had their masks on for many many hours,” she said, explaining that in Vermont, where Covid-19 case numbers have remained low, it’s hard to convince the teens of the importance of mask wearing.

Robinson also noted the psychological challenges that social distancing poses to adolescents at the center.

“[The kids] want to give their friends hugs, and it’s hard to tell them they can’t hug their friends they haven’t seen in six months. It’s heart-wrenching to pull kids away, especially when they have less affectionate parents and their friends are the place they get affection,” Robinson said.

Still, connections are a central part of the teen center experience. The center runs LGBTQIA and other groups both online and in-person. Soon, Middlebury students will be helping the center by leading a food education workshop through Midd’s Nutrition Outreach and Mentoring (NOM) Club over Zoom. Mikayla Humiston, a resources development and volunteer coordinator through AmeriCorps at the center, hopes that this engagement will help teens learn to cook nutritious meals and lead healthier lives.

ACT will host a Haunted Trail on October 23 and 24. It is free and open to all, with a suggested donation of five dollars to support the teen center. For anyone interested in visiting the haunted trail, designed by teens, there are two sessions each night. The first is from 7 p.m. to 8:15 p.m., and the second is from 8:45 p.m. to 10 p.m. 

Although Middlebury students cannot come to the center at this time, emails with ideas or questions for the center are always welcome. Their email address can be found on their website

Julia Pepper

Julia Pepper ’24 is a local editor for The Campus. She  previously served as a staff writer, and wrote about local businesses  and events in Addison county.

She is undeclared, but plans to study Psychology and Political Science, as well as minor in French.

In her free time, Julia enjoys seeing friends, reading, baking, and biking.