St. Andre Church, vacant since 2011, will be renovated to accommodate My Place Teen Center, with a targeted opening date of September 2020. Many gathered at St. Andre on Wednesday, Nov. 20 to hear about the plans. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — A teen center has been a long desired, but elusive, dream in downtown Biddeford for many years. Now, there’s a firm plan to open one, as soon as September 2020.

The announcement of the effort to create My Place Teen Center kicked off Wednesday evening, Nov. 20 at Mission Hill on Bacon Street – in a building that most in the community know as St. Andre’s Church.

Standing in the vast interior space that was once filled with pews, Donna Dwyer, CEO of My Place Teen Center, said once renovated and programs in place, the center would be open five hours a day, five days a week, year around.

My Place Teen Center President Donna Dwyer, Holly Culloton and Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant spoke Wednesday, Nov. 20 about the proposed new teen center, poised to open at the former St. Andre Church in Biddeford in September 2020. Tammy Wells Photo

The Biddeford center will be modeled after My Place Teen Center in Westbrook that has been in operation for 21 years. The Westbrook site serves 40 to 70 young people a day.

It will be a safe place where kids from 10 to 18 can gather, learn, and have fun.

There will be no cost to attend.

“This will improve the lives of families in town for generations,” said Guy Gagnon of the Biddeford Housing Authority, which has been working, along with Southern Maine Affordable Housing and others, to bring a teen center to Biddeford.

The last service at St. Andre was in 2011, 101 years after it was dedicated. BHA purchased the property, which includes the 109-year-old St. Andre Church building, convent, school and rectory in 2014, and has built a total of 50 apartment units in two of the structures.

The new Biddeford teen center will encompass 9,800 square feet of space on the main floor of the church. The expansion, said Dwyer, is part of MPTC’s vision to offer youth relief from poverty, food insecurity and the opioid epidemic with meals and after-school opportunities in a safe environment. Dwyer estimated that between the Westbrook and Biddeford locations, 1,000 young people will be served.

My Place Teen Center offers a leadership academy, mentoring, homework help, life skills like money management, work preparedness, physical fitness and more — such as a restaurant industry training program. The center will feature pool tables, ping pong, and a a friendly, safe, loving atmosphere, said Dwyer. Bullying will not be tolerated, she said.

It is expected the Biddeford My Place Teen Center will serve youngsters from other communities, like Kennebunk, Saco and Old Orchard Beach, as well as Biddeford.

The project includes renovations to the building and operational costs. According to a cost breakdown, operating expenses  for the new Biddeford site and the Westbrook site for two years is $3.85 million. Renovations to the Biddeford site, facilities upkeep, operating reserve and two 15-passenger vans come in at about $1.27 million.

Dwyer said fundraising will be aggressive.

“The longer we wait, the longer the kids will wait,” she said.

BHA Commissioner Al Shinkel said he supports the teen center.

“The youth in Biddeford need some structured programming,” said Shinkel. “The teen center has proven itself in Westbrook.”  The Bacon Street location, in the heart of Biddeford’s downtown, is the best place for the center, he said, noting Biddeford’s alternative high school program is nearby.

Among those attending the announcement ceremony was Joe Hansen, who heads the  Maine Department of Corrections juvenile probation program  in York County.

“Anytime you give kids the opportunity to occupy their free time they are less likely to be involved in activities they shouldn’t be in,” said Hansen. “This is a great for (this) building and great for the community.”

“This is the right time, and the right place,” said Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford.

“I’m really excited about it,” said Dom Deschambault, who serves on Biddeford’ School Committee and is a BHA commissioner.

Holly Culloton was a member of the Heart of Biddeford board when she first became involved with an effort to establish a youth hub back in 2013.

“A lot of people have come together to make this happen,” she said of the new teen center.

Mayor Alan Casavant said he visited the Westbrook My Place Teen Center a few years ago.

“I saw kids in an environment where they were supported and looked after,” he said.

The mayor, a retired school teacher, related a story about a summer job he had that involved visiting Biddeford residents, where he encountered a youth who had been troublesome in his classes. The apartment building was littered with trash. Casavant knocked on a door, and to his surprise, the boy answered. A voice from inside “using every four letter word you can imagine,” was asking who was at the door. “The dad was smashed, at 10 a.m.,” Casavant recalled. “We have teens who fall through the cracks on a regular basis.”

Resident Julie Martin said she and her husband are empty-nesters now, with their daughters in college.

Martin, a former St. Andre parishioner, said she’d like to help empower teen girls.

“I thought I’d come see what it is all about,” she said.

Dwyer announced that My Place Teen Center would enter into a lease agreement with BHA.

She named Jim Godbout project manager for renovations to the building and pointed out he was seeking in-kind assistance.

Among those attending were several young people, including Kaleb Nason, 13.

“I think this is going to be really helpful,” he said of the My Place Teen Center, pointing out the location is in the middle of the city.

When asked if My Place Teen Center was a place he would attend, Nason answered “Yeah.”

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