Leslie Bridgers, Staff Writer
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Cell phones are off. Dinner is ready.

It’s Thursday evening at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Every week, this is the time set aside for giving thanks.

“It’s probably my favorite thing,” said James Tranchemontagne, owner of the nearby Frog & Turtle restaurant, who started the tradition of going around the table and offering gratitude before the weekly meal he prepares for some 40 at-risk kids.

Tranchemontagne, 39, first got involved with the teen center about five years ago when he was asked to serve on its board of directors.

“I always felt like I should be more one-on-one with the kids, rather than sit there and review their financials,” he said.

So, after a couple of years, he stepped down from the board and stepped up his hands-on involvement.

Aside from preparing dinner once week – anything from tacos to Thai food – Tranchemontagne teaches six-week cooking courses for kids at the center who are interested in the industry.

He’s about to start a new monthly ritual in which a handful of teens who have been particularly well-behaved will get to come to the restaurant for burgers with Tranchemontagne, his treat.

He’s also adept at getting other people to give to the center. For one month a year, his restaurant offers a four-course custom dinner with wine pairings for four people, in exchange for a $300 donation to the teen center. That raised more than $5,000 this year.

Every winter, he opens his restaurant for pictures with Santa, a fundraiser to offset the center’s fuel costs, with him providing the homemade doughnuts.

His restaurant also hosts an annual cocktail party and auction to raise money.

In return for his work, Tranchemontagne gets to witness the transformation of the teens, many of whom come to the center with a chip on their shoulder, into motivated young adults.

“It’s just magic through those doors,” he said. “I can’t imagine not being part of it.”