WINOOSKI -- The Onion City's urban landscape has changed over the past few years, and not just because of the new buildings downtown. Since 2003, a group of about 20 Winooski teenagers known as the Teen Advisory Board -- aided by an AmeriCorps*VISTA worker and a liaison from the nonprofit Casey Family Services -- has been working to improve access to recreational opportunities for the city's youth. Like the construction crews, they're making progress.
In February 2005, they christened the Underground, Winooski's teen center, which is open three nights a week in the basement of the Champlain Mill. In June, the group plans to unveil a skatepark. This summer, they're also starting Veggie Town, a community garden that will help teens learn about agriculture and feed local low-income families.
Several TAB members hope to spread the word about their activities through a 20-minute TV show they filmed recently at Channel 17 studios in Burlington. The seven members who appear in the short film are taking part in the Our Voices, Our Communities teen leadership development effort, funded by a $2500 grant from the Vermont Children's Forum. The money paid for the video, which will air on Channel 17, as well as trips for the teens to Petra Cliffs and Farm and Wilderness Camp.
The group has invited the public to attend a screening of the show, followed by a discussion, at the Winooski Family Center on Thursday, May 18, at 5 p.m.
The video, a mock newscast, begins with Winooski High School seniors Marilyn Mora and Christian Seymour explaining that the production is seeking to counter prevailing perceptions. "Stereo-types include that Winooski is a bad place to live," Seymour intones earnestly, "and Winooski teens are no good."
The OVOC participants then describe their various projects in greater detail. They interview the Veggie Town coordinator, and WHS student Chynna Swann, a member of the Vermont Teen Leadership Safety Program. The video is admittedly amateurish, but their intentions are serious. "We hope to change the drug and alcohol abuse, and the amount of teen pregnancies we have in Winooski," Swann explains to the viewer.
It's hard to deny that some Winooski kids are struggling. According the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly 20 percent of Winooski residents under 18 live below the poverty line. And Winooski High School had one of the highest dropout rates in the state in 2005 -- more than 5 percent of students didn't finish high school, double the state's average.
TAB member and WHS senior Han Duong, whose family came to Winooski from Vietnam a decade ago, says these bad-news statistics get exacerbated by the adolescent rumor mill. "Other kids have this impression that we all carry guns and knives to school," she says. "We don't."
Duong, who will attend the University of Vermont next fall, notes that this bad impression is a deeply ingrained part of the area's culture. She recalls that during a bus ride to Burlington, her driver said when she was in school, everyone called the kids in Winooski "river rats."
Erin Buckwalter, Winooski's AmeriCorps*VISTA teen coordinator, says the teens she meets with each week during the school year are a dedicated crew. She'd like the larger community to recognize the group's momentum.
"It's been a really awesome project," she says of the video. "This is a way to show all the good things that are going on."