Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

April 25, 2013

Youths' sweet dream advances to finish lane

Rachel Christ
Andover Historical Society

---- — The town youth center has evolved and changed in significant ways since its creation in 1894. While originally for the educational benefit of young girls and boys in town, it eventually grew to become a social gathering spot. With a gym, basketball court and bowling alley, it seemed like the ideal place to keep kids out of trouble and give them a place to go on the weekends in the mid 20th century.

But after the original facility grew outdated, the center fell into disuse. And plans to create a new center became stymied for decades.

Then, following the shocking suicides of three Andover High School students in 1993, a group of youths came together to try to establish a place for local kids to go. They launched the Andover Youth Society. Similar to its predecessor, The Guild, which was created to fill the needs of the community, AYS was created out of necessity to help the youth of Andover. The group worked to bring on a youth coordinator who would devote time and effort to the town’s young people in areas beyond education.

Bill Fahey was the man hired for the job.

Fahey made his first attempt to build a youth center in 1995, proposing a location in Rec Park. The project was narrowly defeated by the town and Fahey was told he needed to develop a more cohesive youth program and then return to ask for support again.

That is exactly what Fahey, who remains on the job today, did, building AYS to become an award-winning program with more than 300 programs offered each year. Today, AYS has become what those founding kids envisioned — a program that “aims to provide young people useful experiences to promote healthy growth and development.”

In 2008, AYS moved its offices from the third floor of the Town Offices building, which youths found intimidating to enter, to larger quarters at 37-39 Pearson St., where it is today. The new space, which offered a huge opportunity for AYS to expand its programs, was also specifically deemed “not a drop-in center.” Youths would go there to participate in specific activities they had signed up for.

But finding just the right permanent home for the youth center continued to be a hard and grueling journey.

In 1999, Merrimack College proposed construction of a building on its campus near the YMCA, but that never moved forward.

Then in July 2000, the Andover Youth Foundation suggested that land behind Chandler Fire Station in West Andover be used. Selectmen launched fundraisers in hopes of paying for the $2.3 million youth facility. But while the site won Town Meeting approval, the project was unfortunately halted due to the site’s proximity to wetlands and other environmental issues. Plus, many Andover residents thought the location was too far removed from the downtown and most of the town’s schools.

In 2007, the town finally approved a site behind Doherty Middle School, with the final vote to build the $4.2 million Cormier Youth Center coming in 2011.

On Feb. 6, 2012, the Andover Youth Foundation presented the Board of Selectmen with a check for $400,000 to begin the architectural work and design of the new building.

After years of annual telethons — during which Andover youths would get up and show off their stuff and the ever-devoted Fahey even once allowed his hair to be cut for the cause — the optimistic AYS dubbed “The Finish Line” as the theme of its last telethon in March. Youth leaders knew they were close to their end goal.

The hope is to begin construction of the center in August. Although it is too late for many of us to actively use the teen center, our eyes are on the youths to come. While it is bittersweet knowing that we have missed our chance, it is heartening to see the hopeful faces of tomorrow benefiting from the hard work of our entire community as it has pulled together to accomplish what has been our sweet dream for many years.

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Rachel Christ is a senior at Andover High School and a volunteer at the Andover Historical Society.